Robotics has always had the ambitious effort to make work and society safer, cleaner, and more interesting for us. To do so, technological innovation has constantly been pushing the envelope, drastically redefining parts of our lives. However, to bring such technological advancements, it is important to limit any harm to humans. Nuclear power has emerged as a response to keep up with the rapid expansion of our society. Currently, to maintain such vital facilities, a human touch is required. But, how can we make such work safer?

Jackal UGV Explores Nuclear Facilities

Well, a team from the University of Manchester, Lancaster University, and National Nuclear Laboratory is using Jackal UGV to test the real-world application of the remote inspection of nuclear facilities to reduce the time that humans are required on-site, reducing radiation exposure and reducing cost. The project, titled TORONE (Total Characterisation by Remote Observation in Nuclear Environments), has set out to develop instruments for in-situ characterization of materials and ionizing radiation in hazardous nuclear environments. The team is hoping to accomplish this by deploying a suite of bespoke sensors on mobile robot platforms. This characterization is a critical task for the long-term monitoring and decommissioning of legacy nuclear facilities.

Jackal UGV on-site

However, this task is far from easy. Nuclear environments destined for decommissioning are often cluttered, unstructured, and hazardous. Robots deployed in such environments need to be able to tackle uneven ground and obstacles, be fitted with sensors for situational awareness such as cameras and lidar, and have a long battery life to provide meaningful data collection where access is often strictly controlled. 

By using the Clearpath Jackal, an out-of-the-box ready-to-go robotic solution, the team was able to concentrate on miniaturizing laser systems such as LIBS and Raman spectroscopy, as well as sophisticated gamma radiation detection to provide the needed information about nuclear facilities. Furthermore, such a complex and often obstacle-ridden environment relies on a rugged mobile platform to deliver it to places humans can’t reach.

Dr. Ioannis Tsitsimpelis preparing Jackal UGV for its deployment around the reactor

Learning From the Past to Improve the Future

By using gamma spectroscopy, the team is looking to identify what radionuclides are present in an unknown environment. This would allow stakeholders to plan how to best handle those materials.  Not only are the team’s sensors capable of identifying nuclear materials, but through the use of collimated gamma imaging, they are also aided in localization.  This relies on Jackal UGV knowing its location through SLAM, alongside 3D laser reconstruction. 

Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS), on the other hand, is good for identifying elemental composition, particularly metals, whereas Raman spectroscopy is effective in identifying organic materials. In Raman spectroscopy, a laser is directed at a target surface and the material composition can be assessed by interpreting the light which is returned using a spectrometer.  

Each material has a unique spectral fingerprint, therefore these instruments can confirm the use of common materials that you would expect such as stainless steel, but also other materials which may pose a threat to human health. These two laser systems in tandem with gamma spectroscopy provide a comprehensive picture of what activities might have taken place in legacy nuclear facilities and, more importantly, how best to clean up and decommission such environments.

Jackal UGV showing off its attached hardware

To accomplish its goal of characterizing materials, their Jackal UGV carries two SICK TiM-571 2D lidars at the front and rear to provide full coverage for autonomous mapping and navigation, rather than a single 360-degree lidar unit, which also allows for a larger instrument payload area in the center.  These instruments are then interchangeable for laser-based instruments or sensors for monitoring radioactivity.

Currently, sample collection by humans is the traditional method for the survey and inspection of nuclear environments.  To minimize health risks, radiation workers wear bulky air-fed suits to enter the environment and remove material from the facility to be analyzed at an external laboratory.

Not only is this approach of manual inspection costly, but it puts radiation workers at unnecessary risk and creates additional contaminated waste which must be disposed of.  Furthermore, there are some places where the hazards from radiation, chemicals, or physical risks are too great and humans are precluded from entering entirely. It’s easy to see how a robotic solution can ease this process and keep humans safe.

“Having all the ROS code the Jackal [UGV] runs available online was invaluable in allowing us to quickly get the system running and make any necessary changes for our use case. The ease of use compared to other non-ROS platforms is unparalleled.”

Dr. Andrew West

Up and Running with ROS

The team found the use of Jackal UGV to be very straightforward and were excited to also able to upgrade to Ubuntu 16.04 and Kinetic. To keep their project simple, light, and efficient, the team leveraged Jackal UGV’s payload capacity to maintain a small overall footprint.  This smaller size allowed the platform to survey areas in cluttered environments that otherwise are inaccessible for humans. They also found it to be small enough to be easily transported to various facilities globally. 

Finally, as TORONE researcher Dr. Andrew West stated: “Having all the ROS code the Jackal [UGV] runs available online was invaluable in allowing us to quickly get the system running and make any necessary changes for our use case. The ease of use compared to other non-ROS platforms is unparalleled.” For this effort, the team found the support of the Robot Operating System to be a key consideration for the project.  It allowed for simple integration of additional instrumentation, whilst providing existing functionality such as SLAM and visualization.

This joint effort to make nuclear inspections safer and more cost-efficient has already been successfully deployed at the Jožef Stefan Institute TRIGA Mk II nuclear reactor in Slovenia to characterize the gamma radiation field in the reactor hall during operation. The team was able to remotely assess materials using LIBS and Raman spectroscopy, as well as identify radiation hot spots. The Jackal UGV based project is also destined for deployment at other active nuclear sites such as Sellafield in the UK. Furthermore, you can also read their full project findings as published in the IEEE Sensors Journal.

The TORONE team is composed of Dr. Andrew West, Dr. Ioannis Tsitsimpelis, Dr. Paul Coffey, Dr. Michael Aspinall, Professor Barry Lennox, Professor Malcom Joyce, Professor Philip Martin, and Professor Nic Smith.

To learn more about the TORONE project, you can visit their website here.

To learn more about the Jackal UGV, visit our website here.

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