2 March 2017
Lancaster engineers are part of a team which will map some of the world’s most radioactive sites using sensing technology mounted on an advanced robotic vehicle.

The world is home to a large number of sites which are contaminated with radioactive waste and require clean-up and analysis. Currently, the options to map and assess these sites are extremely expensive and time-consuming – involving either removing samples for lab analysis or sending in remote sensors which only give part of the necessary picture.

The TORONE research team, led by the University of Manchester, has been awarded a £1.6 million grant by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to form a group which will develop a new robotic system with the ability to use a wider range of sensors than ever before to map nuclear sites.

Featuring optical spectroscopic techniques, advanced radiation detection methods and modern sensor technologies on remotely-operated vehicle platforms, each sensing technology will provide a piece of the ‘total characterisation’ jigsaw, together with 3D mapping of the material within the environment.

It will feature advanced robotics and control technologies, such as those used in NASA’s Curiosity Rover, to form the flexible platform necessary for trials in nuclear environments ranging from Sellafield in the UK, the US and to Fukushima in Japan.

Nuclear technology experts at Lancaster University will develop advanced radiation detection techniques to provide a mobile assessment of radioactivity in extreme, harsh environments.

Professor Malcolm Joyce, from Lancaster University’s Engineering Department, and co-investigator in the project, said: “This is a great opportunity to combine the state-of-the-art in remote, autonomous deployment technologies and advanced sensing methods to help clean up some of the most challenging polluted environments in the world.”

Primary Investigator, Dr Phil Martin from The University of Manchester’s School of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science, said: “This is an exciting project bringing together a multi-disciplinary team of scientists and engineers to develop a really innovative system for remote characterisation of a range of nuclear environments which should lead to big improvements in the decommissioning process.”

The Consortium, known as TORONE (TOtal characterisation by Remote Observation in Nuclear Environments), is made up of scientists from Lancaster, Manchester and Aston Universities, the National Nuclear Laboratory and the UK Atomic Energy Authority. The project is three years in duration and will start in March 2017.

The TORONE group will be working with Sellafield, and Sellafield Ltd Robotics and Autonomous Systems Lead, Dr Paul Mort, said: “Characterisation of materials is of critical importance on the Sellafield site. Improved understanding of what materials are and where they are in our facilities offers considerable benefits when we are planning and carrying out decommissioning activities.

“A technology that is cheap and able to be remotely deployed simply and quickly to inspect materials in-situ, will make it safer for humans and give an opportunity to get better data to make more informed decisions. This technology would have far-reaching applications on site and has the potential to improve productivity, thereby reducing decommissioning timescales and costs.”