Developing semi-automatic nuclear decommissioning robots

A mobile robot with two manipulating arms
The mobile robot with manipulating arms grasping a pipe

Lancaster University engineers are developing computer systems for robots dealing with hazardous nuclear waste.

The software will make the robots semi-autonomous - simplifying human control, which has to be done remotely due to the highly radioactive environments in which the robots operate.

The software has the potential to significantly speed-up decommissioning operations, while also retaining human oversight of the robot.

Making use of novel imaging software and a Microsoft Kinect camera added to a mobile robot with two manipulating arms, the system makes it easier to identify, grasp and cut objects – such as metal pipes, which are a common material found in nuclear decommissioning sites.

James Taylor, Professor of Control Engineering at Lancaster University’s Department of Engineering, said: “The standard within nuclear decommissioning is for direct human-controlled remote tele-operation of robots, which is extremely difficult for the operators particularly given the complexity of nuclear decommissioning tasks. Fully autonomous solutions are unlikely to be deemed safe in the near future and so we have explored creating a semi-autonomous solution that sits between the two.

“By making use of a single camera mounted on the robot our system focusses on a common task in these harsh environments – the selecting and cutting of pipes. Our system enables an operator to instruct the robot manipulator to perform a pipe grasp and cut action with just four mouse clicks.

“Tests show that operators using this system successfully outperform operators using the current joystick-based standard. It keeps the user in control of the overall robot but significantly reduces user workload and operation time.”

So far the system has been tested in laboratory conditions with a small number of operators. The researchers recognise that further testing is required, and additional measures, such as shielding, would be needed to prepare the system for radioactive environments.

The work, which was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), as part of the National Centre for Nuclear Robotics, has been outlined in the paper ‘Vision-based assisted tele-operation of a dual-arm hydraulically actuated robot for pipe cutting and grasping in nuclear environments’, which has been published by the journal Robotics.

The National Centre for Nuclear Robotics is a consortium of 10 research institutions, led by the University of Birmingham, which is developing cutting-edge robotics and AI technologies, to assist with cleaning up the UK’s 4.9Million tonnes of legacy nuclear waste. Its focus is the nuclear domain, carrying out tasks in radioactive environments that are too hazardous for humans to enter. However, these advanced robot technologies also have wide application to many other industries.

The paper’s authors are Manuel Bandala, Craig West, Stephen Monk, Allahyar Montazeri, and James Taylor, all of Lancaster University’s Department of Engineering.

DOI: 10.3390/robotics8020042

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