British drone set to help nuclear accident sites

A drone built to improve monitoring of nuclear disaster sites such as Fukushima has won funding to help its creator commercialise the device.

The quadcopter’s developer, Bristol University’s Dr James MacFarlane, claims it can provide a much more accurate picture of radiation at a nuclear site than current ground-based or helicopter-mounted equipment and even determine its precise chemical source.

MacFarlane plans to use the £15,000 award from the Royal Academy of Engineering and ERA Foundation to prove the reliability of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) by testing it at the site of the devastated Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, but hopes it could also be useful for day-to-day monitoring of operational plants as a complement to – rather than a replacement for – static points.

‘Because you can only have a limited number of static monitoring points around a site, the flexibility of being mobile gives an advantage to the operator,’ MacFarlane told The Engineer.

‘Static points are also susceptible to damage. Fukushima had 24 of these points around the site. It was hit by the tsunami and 23 of those were immediately disabled so they had one mointoring point for the entire site and no idea what was going on.’

He added that the new Advanced Airborne Radiation Monitoring (AARM) drone could have been beneficial if used at the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing centre in Cumbria, which recently shutdown after detecting radiation that later emerged to be from a naturally occuring radon source outside the site’s perimeter.

‘With our system you could have flown across the site and worked out where the radiation was actually coming from,’ he said. ‘So not only would we have told them it was from outside the perimeter fence so there was no need to worry, but also that it was a from a natural source from radon and not something from the plant leaking out.’

Instead of the standard Geiger coutner technology used by the static systems, the drone carries a lightweight, semiconductor-based gamma ray spectrometer that analyses the energy signature of detected radiation to identify what element it comes from, as well as using a positioning system to pinpoint the location of the radiation source.

The drone enables a much higher resolution radiation map of a nuclear site than current helicopter-based technology.

MacFarlane said the engineering challenge in developing the pre-commercial prototype had been going from a system built largely with off-the-shelf components to a device that could fly for over half an hour by using lighter materials, better battery technology and improving the craft’s frame and aerodynamic design.

‘Because it’s very small and lightweight, it allows you to get very close to the ground, which gives you improved sensitivity and resolution,’ he said. ’If you use a big helicopter you’d typically have to fly them very high and as such you’d normally only have 200m2 pixels on the ground. The system we’ve produced can be flown within 5m of the ground surface or the treetops, and this gives you a pixel resolution down at the metre scale.’

As part of the Entrepreneurship Award, Macfarlane will be mentored by two Royal Academy of Engineering fellows, professors Richard Brook and Eric Yeatman, both of whom have experience spinning out university research into commercial products.

A second award was made to Strathclyde University’s Dr David Heath, who has developed an anti-ageing cream applicator that uses electrical stimulation to allow the cream to penetrate the skin more deeply.

Arnoud Jullens, head of enterprise at the Royal Academy of Engineering, said in a statement: ‘We’ve already seen outstanding progress from previous winners of this prestigious prize, and we have high hopes for this year’s researchers and their innovative projects. With funding and support from the Enterprise Hub’s network of experienced entrepreneurs, I’m confident we will see the commercial potential of these projects realised.’