Every year, about 2000-2300 metric tons of nuclear waste are produced around the world. The United Kingdom is among one of the largest nuclear waste generators, with an estimated 1.6 million cubic meters expected to be generated in Great Britain alone by 2030. While there are conscious efforts aimed at reducing this drastic figure, it’s believed the cost of cleaning the UK’s nuclear sites and facilities will range between £95 billion and £219 billion ($100 billion-$231 billion) over the next 120 years. Looking to find safe innovative ways to dispose this rapidly accumulating material, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has issued a grant of £4.6 million ($4.85 million) to a team of student and industry engineers with hopes they will develop autonomous robots to safely dispose of the country’s nuclear waste stockpile.
The manufacturing of robotics to help in this matter is significant because conditions at these facilities and waste sites are so hazardous they limit direct human access and interaction. Robots have been used to clean nuclear waste in the past (most recently at Japan’s Fukushima plant), however these current models have physical limitations. Small, submersible, and ground-based robots capable of being used at nuclear waste sites and facilities have already been developed by engineers from the University of Manchester, but still exhibit these same struggles of performing basic tasks like turning valves and navigating up staircases and across unsteady terrain.
“This program of work will enable us to fundamentally improve RAS (robotics and autonomous systems) capabilities, allowing technologies to be reliably deployed into harsh environments, keeping humans away from the dangers of radiation,” says Professor Barry Lennox, project leader at University of Manchester. “If we are to be realistic about clearing up contaminated sites, then we have to invest in this type of technology. These environments are some of the most extreme that exist, so the benefits of developing this technology can also apply to a wide range of scenarios.”
The team’s models are expected to be used in other inhospitable environments like space, mining, and in the deep sea.
With engineers coming from Universities like Manchester, Birmingham, and West of England, along with companies like Sellafield, EdF Energy, UKAEA, and NuGen, hopes are high the team will address these severe shortcomings and make additional vast improvements on their models. The main components the engineering team is researching advancements in are autonomy, computing, sensory, and mechanical functions.
The team’s first prototype robots are projected to be completed within the next five years, after which they’ll be given trial runs in active and inactive environments. These trials are expected to use robotic manipulators to autonomously organize waste material, during which the bots are expected to collaboratively sift through and break down everything in these waste sites and facilities, some of which haven’t been used for 40 years.
Filed Under: M2M (machine to machine)