New Tsunami Detection System to be Tested in Fukushima Pref.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

A new drone–based tsunami detection system is launching this fiscal year in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, in a bid to streamline evacuations of residents in the event of a massive tsunami. When a tsunami warning is issued, a drone films open water to observe any changes in the sea surface and live-streams the footage to residents via smartphone.The system hopes to discourage residents from having a normalcy bias— the tendency for individuals to minimize warnings of danger, believing nothing serious will happen to them—and incentivise them to evacuate quickly.

In the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, many are believed to have lost their lives from hesitating to evacuate even after hearing tsunami warnings. The Namie town government hopes that people watching the live feed of incoming tsunami waves from the drone, such as residents, anglers and others near the sea, will realize the danger they are in and help minimize the number of individuals failing to evacuate. Namie will first test-run the system to examine to what extent the drone can capture the movements of offshore tsunami waves and then make improvements by listening to opinions of experts and incorporating the latest information and technologies.

The system was jointly developed by the town government and Aizawa Concrete Corporation based in Tomakomai, Hokkaido. When a tsunami warning issued by the J-Alert nationwide early warning system is received, a drone automatically takes off from an earthquake-resistant hangar located in the town and films any changes in the sea surface from about 100 meters above. The aircraft is capable of flying for up to six hours and residents can view the drone’s live feed through downloading an app on their phones. “We would like to discuss better ways to help residents understand imminent danger,” a town government official in charge of the issue said.

A system to use a drone in supporting tsunami evacuation will also be introduced this fiscal year in Ichinomiya, Chiba Prefecture, a surfer hub that held the surfing competition in the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021. Once a drone receives a tsunami warning by the J-Alert system, it will fly over the sea to alert surfers through its speaker.

Sendai introduced a similar system in 2022 after volunteer fire corps members died while calling on residents to evacuate during the 2011 earthquake. Live feeds are not provided to residents for both systems in Sendai and Ichinomiya.

Yuichiro Tanioka, professor emeritus at Hokkaido University who is familiar with issues related to tsunami disaster preparation, said: “Using a drone to film the surface of the sea will make it possible to provide accurate and real-time information for residents. In order to make evacuations more efficient, more efforts could be made; artificial intelligence could be used to estimate the tsunami arrival time and height based on drone footage taken further offshore and warn residents real-time.”