UK team to develop autonomous robots for clearing nuclear waste

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A team of engineers from across industry and academia has received £4.6m of EPSRC funding to develop robots for cleaning up the UK’s legacy of dangerous nuclear waste.

The cost of cleaning up the UK’s existing nuclear facilities has been estimated to be between £95 billion and £219 billion over the next 120 years or so. However, the harsh conditions within these facilities means that human access is highly restricted and much of the work will need to be completed by robots.

Whilst robotic systems have previously been used to deal with hazardous nuclear materials – most notably at Japan’s damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant – the technology does still have limitations, including the ability to perform relatively straightforward tasks such as turning valves, navigating staircases and moving over rough terrain.

The new group, which comprises the Universities of Manchester, Birmingham, and the West of England (UWE) along with Sellafield, EdF Energy, UKAEA and NuGen plans to develop robots with vastly improved performance: autonomous systems with advanced computing, sensing and mechanical abilities.

Within the next five years, the researchers will produce prototype robots which will then be trialled in both active and inactive environments. It is anticipated that these trials will include using robotic manipulators to autonomously sort and segregate waste materials and to use multiple robots, working collaboratively, to characterise facilities that may not have been accessed for 40 years or more.

Project leader, University of Manchester’s Professor Barry Lennox, said: “This programme of work will enable us to fundamentally improve RAS (Robotics and autonomous systems) capabilities, allowing technologies to be reliably deployed in to harsh environments, keeping humans away from the dangers of radiation.”

The technology they develop is also expected to have potential in other hostile environments, such as space, sub-sea, and mining.

The University of Manchester has already developed small submersible and ground-based vehicles that can be deployed to survey nuclear facilities.

Lennox added: “If we are to be realistic about clearing up contaminated sites, then we have to invest in this type of technology.  These environments are some of the most extreme that exist, so the benefits of developing this technology can also apply to a wide range of other scenarios.”