August 29, 2023 TOPICS

[Visiting Centers of Knowledge] Frontier Research Center for Natural Disaster Mitigation:Providing cutting-edge disaster prevention science to society through interdisciplinary research

We live in an era in which torrential rains cause major damage every year, and everyone is waiting for the next massive earthquake to occur. With the growing interest in disaster prevention research, or the study of how to protect society from natural disasters, the research field is expanding through interdisciplinary efforts. Where does the Ritsumeikan University Frontier Research Center for Natural Disaster Mitigation, whose history spans nearly 20 years dating back to the establishment of its predecessor, set its sights? To answer this and other questions, we interviewed the center director, Professor Yoshifumi Satofuka (Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, College of Science and Engineering).

Promoting interdisciplinary research since the Center’s inception

Professor Satofuka began by discussing the trends surrounding disaster prevention research around the time of the Center’s establishment.

“Traditionally, disaster prevention research in Japan focused on disaster science, which aims to elucidate the mechanisms of natural phenomena that cause disasters such as earthquakes, landslides, and floods, and disaster prevention engineering, which aims to improve the earthquake resistance of buildings, levees, and dams in order to combat these natural threats.

The Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake was a milestone that added a new perspective to the field. Scholars began to look at how people act and what happens to society when a disaster strikes, and they started conducting research on wide-ranging disaster preparedness that includes people and society. In particular, they pointed out the importance of mutual aid and self-help, which is not limited to assistance provided by public agencies but also includes neighbors and people preparing and protecting each other and themselves in the event of a disaster. This was a major change.”

When disaster prevention research began to involve a wide range of areas, including people and society, a movement to establish a disaster prevention research institute took shape at Ritsumeikan University. In 2005, Ritsumeikan University established the Research Center for Disaster Prevention Systems when it was selected by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) for the High-Tech Research Center Development Project. Based on the results of this center’s research, the university established the Frontier Research Center for Natural Disaster Mitigation in 2009.

According to Professor Satofuka, the Center's distinctive features had already been clearly defined from the time its predecessor, the Research Center for Disaster Prevention Systems, was launched. Namely, this refers to the fact that the Center actively conducts interdisciplinary research that combines disaster science and disaster prevention engineering, the traditional mainstays of the discipline, with other research fields.

Achievements realized in collaboration with sensor and information communication researchers

Among the interdisciplinary research pursued by the Center, projects conducted with researchers in the fields of sensors and sensing and information and communications have led to numerous achievements, according to Professor Satofuka.

“These fields are some of Ritsumeikan’s strong suits. By applying these technologies to disaster prevention research, we can provide a more accurate, faster, and more extensive picture of natural phenomena than is possible with just human perception. The main goal of this collaboration is to elucidate the previously unknown mechanisms of disaster and establish more effective disaster prevention technologies.”

What kind of research is the Center currently working on? Examples include research on slope failure during heavy rains. Slope failure refers to the phenomenon when a mountain slope collapses, causing major damage such as mudslides and landslides, and these are often reported in the news. This research aims to elucidate the mechanisms of slope failure by using sensors to continuously conduct observations and run experiments in the field. The researchers are also developing a system that uses sensors to monitor slope conditions and evaluate slope stability based on observed data, such as the amount of moisture and rainfall on a slope.

“In the event of a torrential downpour, roads are closed to traffic in order to prevent disasters from occurring. This is currently determined by rainfall, but that alone is not an accurate indicator. A system that can properly assess the risk of slope failure would allow for safer decisions on when to close and open roads in a way that makes sense to the users. Going forward, we aim to develop a system that can evaluate slope conditions more precisely by further examining and incorporating the necessary slope observation data.”

Looking at the information and communications fields, the Center is conducting research on how to IoT can be used to support snow removal operations. Unlike highways and other major roads with few obstacles, on residential roads, various structures like curbs and fire hydrants become buried in the snow. What’s more, snow removal is not an easy task, since operators must avoid pedestrians, vehicles, and other obstacles.

With this project, the Center is looking at ways to improve the efficiency of snow removal. Researchers developed a system that uses GPS and 5G telecommunications to transmit photos of snow-free roads to snowplow operators in real time. In addition, a system is under development that uses LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging), which measures the shape of objects by emitting infrared lasers, to map a wide area of road surfaces and analyze snow accumulation and snowfall conditions in real time in areas where snow removal is required.

3D point cloud data measured by LiDAR
3D point cloud data measured by LiDAR

In another project, researchers are working to solve the problem of communication infrastructure breakdowns in the event of a disaster. By developing a network that can connect mobile terminals, such as smartphones and in-vehicle communication devices, to each other wirelessly like a relay, the Center is trying to help build an information system that can used in emergency situations.

The Center as a hub connecting numerous researchers in a diverse array of fields

Numerous research achievements have revealed that the Center has accumulated new knowledge in a wide range of areas, including the elucidation of the mechanisms of natural disasters, the understanding and communication of the phenomena themselves, and even disaster response. However, Professor Satofuka emphasizes that the collaboration with the sensor and information communication fields is "only a small part of the Center's interdisciplinary research.

“One of the characteristics of this Center is that it is very open and flexible. We are involved in a wide range of research projects in collaboration with researchers in various fields both inside and outside the university. Naturally, this includes joint research with researchers in the social sciences, not just the so-called hard sciences. I would say that the Center itself is proof that you can attract all kinds of people to focus on the keyword of disaster prevention."

The Center has become a hub that connects many researchers in various fields, and from what we heard, it is actively engaged in research. The diversity of information and people gathered at this hub will be a source of innovation that will lead to cutting-edge research in the field of disaster prevention.

Next, Professor Satofuka spoke about the importance of interdisciplinary research with the social sciences, using river disaster prevention as an example.

“Until now, flood control has meant building levees and dams to control the overflow of rivers. Now, however, there is a shift toward considering flood control not only for rivers, but for entire watersheds. Policies are being implemented to make communities safer by way of appropriate land use, such as curbing development in areas with a high risk of disaster and promoting relocation. How can we reduce the risk of disasters while ensuring as much as possible that local residents' lives will not be inconvenienced? The answer to this question requires us to look at a wide range of topics such as policy making, community development, regional revitalization, and communication. Now more than ever, it is essential for the social and natural sciences to work together.”

Disaster Prevention Frontier Research Forum:Building connections with society

It is clear that policies on disaster prevention are constantly being improved using knowledge derived from examples of past disasters. According to Professor Satofuka, this is why it is so important for the Center to work with governments and other entities that actually formulate and implement disaster prevention policies and to create connections with society.

The Disaster Prevention Frontier Research Forum, established at the time of the Center's opening in 2009, provides opportunities for researchers to make direct connections with society. In addition to holding seminars and symposiums to share information and issues with national and local government administrators, private companies, and other stakeholders, members of the Forum also conduct surveys and research to solve individual problems, and they teach disaster prevention courses for employees in charge of disaster prevention in local communities and companies as well as for junior high and high school students.

“We hope to contribute to the improvement of local disaster preparedness by actively sharing the outcomes of our research with society by way of the Forum’s activities. We also hold exchange events during seminars and symposiums to provide an opportunity to listen directly to issues and requests from the people on the ground. It is a very valuable opportunity for us to interact with people who are dealing with disaster prevention from a different standpoint than researchers and to get a firsthand idea of the needs of society.”

In this way, the Center's disaster prevention research has steadily produced results while maintaining extensive ties not only with the research community, but also with those on the frontlines of disaster prevention. Dr. Satofuka says that his goal has always been to "contribute to improving people's safety.”

“Compared to other developed countries and even globally, Japan is not a country with a small number of natural disaster victims. There are many researchers who feel that more can be done. We want to be the first to deliver to the people what we have discovered at the leading edge of natural disaster research as well as newly established information technologies in the field of disaster prevention. I believe this is our duty.”

The "frontier" in the name of the Center tells us that it always has an eye on the future. It will be interesting to see what kind of innovations will emerge from now on.

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