TSB funds robots for radioactive environments

Robots could increasingly carry out the more dangerous tasks in nuclear power stations, following research funded by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB).

Twenty feasibility studies sharing £2m from the TSB will look at how new technology could help address challenges in the civil nuclear power sector, from advanced manufacture maintenance and construction to waste handling.

Many of the projects will be carried out by firms without previous experience of working in the sector, with the aim of developing a stronger supply chain.

The Shadow Robot Company, the firm that claims to have developed the world’s most advanced robotic hand, is planning one study with the National Nuclear Laboratory to identify areas where robotics could be applied.

Robots could be used in any ‘difficult, dirty or dangerous situations where you’d rather not send a human in,’ managing director Rich Walker told The Engineer. ‘We want to see if we can make difficult tasks easier without compromising safety.’

For example, the company hopes to look at giving robots the capability to build a virtual map of their surroundings so that they can automatically avoid obstacles.

This would leave the human controller free to concentrate on the task the robot is completing without worrying about its exact movements within confined areas.

‘There’s a lot of telemanipulation work in the nuclear industry already where robots are performing skilled tasks but humans are directly controlling them using lots of information,’ said Walker. ‘We want to ask what you can do to make it easier to do the job.’

Other robotics studies in the programme include the LaserSnake project from OCRobotics. This will combine flexible ‘snake-arm’ robots and fibre lasers to create a way of surgically removing components from within radioactive areas during decommissioning.

The idea is that only the arm, carrying the laser fibre and focusing optics, will move around the radioactive environment while the robot drive system and the laser source remain outside in the accessible area.

The funding follows a TSB-commissioned review of the UK’s nuclear capability, which highlighted the potential of SMEs to encourage innovation in the sector by transferring skills and technology in a number of key underpinning areas.

The TSB hopes the studies will create opportunities for British firms in a global market valued at around £600bn for nuclear power installations and £250bn for decommissioning, waste treatment and disposal.

‘Many of these studies will be led by SMEs, or will have their strong involvement,’ said the TSB’s chief executive, Iain Gray.

‘We see the transfer of innovative technologies from other sectors and support for SMEs, working with major companies in the civil nuclear sector, as essential in developing and sustaining the strongest possible UK supply chain.’