Semi-Autonomous, Nuclear Decommissioning Robot Sees With Microsoft Kinect

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There are various “levels” of nuclear waste, but none of them is something anyone ought to handle in person. That’s why remotely operated robots have become the standard tool to decommission nuclear facilities and process radioactive materials. However, it’s difficult to control every movement of a robot when doing complex tasks like cleaning up a nuclear reactor. That’s why a team from Lancaster University have developed a semi-autonomous robot that could make the process faster and easier.

It’s very unlikely that a truly autonomous robot will be trusted with nuclear decommissioning tasks any time soon. After all, AI is still far from perfect, and the stakes are as high as they get when you’re dealing with highly radioactive materials in large enough quantities to cause runaway nuclear reactions.

The Lancaster robot splits the difference by adding some autonomous smarts to the process but leaving the human operator in the driver’s seat. The team created imaging software that lets the robot “see” the world around it and identify objects like pipes, handles, and other materials common inside nuclear decommissioning sites. It does that with the help of a Microsoft Kinect camera. Yes, the doomed gaming accessory lives on among scientists who need a cheap depth-sensing camera.

The robot has graspers that a human could awkwardly control using a joystick, but operators working with the Lancaster robot merely have to tell it what task to undertake next. In testing, it took just four mouse clicks for an operator to point the robot at an object and select an action. It’s up to the robot to work out the specifics of lifting, pulling, and cutting. The team says its semi-autonomous robot vastly outperformed manual operation.

This technology could make decommissioning work faster and speed up the training of new operators. However, the test was far from authentic. It took place in a laboratory with no radioactive materials — any radiation would have spelled trouble for the robot, which lacks industrial radiation shielding. The robot successfully completed tasks like cutting plastic pipes, which is similar to work it would need to do in the field. The researchers intend to keep improving the design and operation. Future versions may be able to survive radiation exposure and relay data like temperature and audio from the hot zone.

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