Bristol shows off drone to make radiation mapping safer

A flying drone that could help safely monitor nuclear disaster sites was unveiled by the University of Bristol today.

Researchers created the semi-autonomous “ARM system” as a way of providing visual, thermal and radiation monitoring in radioactive locations such as the Fukushima power plant in Japan, where helicopter pilots assessing the site were exposed to significant amounts of radiation following the 2011 incident.

‘By using light-weight and low-cost unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) systems, we can immediately and remotely determine the spread and intensity of radiation following any such event,’ said project lead Dr Tom Scott, director of the university’s Interface Analysis Centre.

‘The systems have sufficient in-built intelligence to deploy them following an incident and are effectively disposable if they become contaminated.’

The Bristol team, which included the drone’s designers Dr Oliver Payton and Dr James Macfarlane, have tested the vehicle over the past six months in various weather conditions including rain, snow and high winds, at radioactively contaminated sites in southwest Romania as well as a naturally occurring anomaly site in Cornwall.

‘Concurrently with project RISER, which is developing micro-unmanned aerial vehicles for the indoor mapping of radiation, we have developed an outdoors system that is now ready for commercial deployment,’ said Scott.

The RISER micro-drones were unveiled last month and demonstrated how they could navigate a building via a predetermined path, detecting and mapping radiation sources as they went, and then return to the sources to create a more detailed image.

The university is now working closely with the National Nuclear Laboratory to offer this technology in Japan as a tool for assisting with environmental surveying during the ongoing Fukishima clean-up operations and in the surround prefecture.

The team is also working to develop UAV mapping and exploration algorithms for projects relating to the detection of buried explosives and depleted uranium ordinance.

The system was jointly funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Sellafield Ltd.