Robot snake lasers offer safe decommissioning solution

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OC Robotics is leading an £8m collaborative project that will investigate the feasibility of using robot-mounted lasers to dismantle vessels, support structures and pipe work during nuclear decommissioning.

LaserSnake2 is expected to deliver an exportable solution that will position Britain at the forefront of decommissioning technologies. Beyond this role, the technology could be applied in markets including oil and gas, construction and aerospace.

Running from 2013 to 2016, the project’s primary objectives are to develop long reach snake-arm robots for hazardous and confined spaces (in air and under water); combine snake-arms and mobile robots to create a mobile platform capable of exploring complex spaces; and develop laser cutting optics for safe, remote cutting in air and in water.

Underpinning these objectives is the requirement for the technology to satisfy regulatory and certification requirements associated with teleoperated delivery of laser cutting solutions for the nuclear sector.

Rob Buckingham, managing director of OC Robotics said, ‘Lots of cutting operations have been done, for example with sheers, diamond wire, and mechanical cutters. They all have challenges, they all have risks associated with them. Some require precision, some are very big and bulky so lasers are an interesting approach but they [too] come with challenges.

‘If there’s explosive material around will heat from the laser ignite the material? That immediately brings you into the world of nuclear safety; demonstrating and proving the technology is safe.’

He explained that the company’s Snake Arm robot had previously been adapted to accommodate water jet cutting equipment supplied by Sellafield Ltd for a workshop-based demonstration.

He added that Lasersnake itself originated from a project OC Robotics had done with TWI on integrating lasers into the Bristol-based company’s highly-manoeuvrable robotic solution.

For LaserSnake2 consortium partner TWI will address the process control of the laser in order to avoid creating secondary waste. Another key consideration, said Buckingham, is the laser’s optics.

‘The optics are critical…you’ve got to shape the beam in the right way and get the beam’s energy dissipated the right way into the material,’ he said.

The project has received grant funding of around £5.7m from The Technology Strategy Board, Department for Energy and Climate Change, and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.

The project shares some of the £31m funding announced by UK Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills Vince Cable to support the development of the nuclear supply chain.

Project partners include the National Nuclear Laboratory, Laser Optical Engineering and ULO Optics.