Fukushima: Autonomous Drones Inspect Radioactive Hot Spots

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The Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) is teaming up with Tokyo Electric Power to deploy autonomous drones that can assess conditions and damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power following a 9.0 magnitude earthquake in 2011.

Working with the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Lab at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) School of Engineering and Applied Science, SwRI engineers will deploy smaller UAVs to explore the containment unit.

Causing a tsunami with estimated wave heights of 43 feet, the earthquake took three reactors out of commission, leaving dangerous radiation levels in its wake and making manned decontamination missions nearly impossible.

“This is a formidable challenge,” said Project Manager Dr. Monica Garcia, a senior research engineer in SwRI’s Intelligent Systems Division. “The conditions inside the containment at Fukushima Daiichi are quite possibly the most challenging environment that the SwRI-Penn team has had to address. We will be pushing the envelope in terms of the technology.”

In 2017, SwRI conducted a successful test of the UAS system at its San Antonio campus, verifying that drone components could handle high levels of radiation.

“As robots get smaller, faster, and smarter, this is exactly the kind of problem we want them to address,” said Dr. Vijay Kumar, the Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. “Challenges like this are what push research in our field forward.”

“The team is adapting high-speed, advanced mobility drones to collect key information about the current status,” said Technical Lead Dr. Richard Garcia, also a senior research engineer at SwRI. “This information will play an important role in future decontamination and decommission efforts at Fukushima Daiichi.”

In 2015, Autonomous Control Systems Laboratory Ltd., a university-based venture headed by Chiba University professor Kenzo Nonami, developed a drone-based system that successfully navigated the less-damaged No. 5 reactor building at Fukushima.

Drone company Cyberhawk used drones in December to inspect two concrete PWR containment domes for American Electric Power at the Cook Nuclear Plant, located along Lake Michigan’s eastern shoreline. According to Cyberhawk, this was the first time a drone has been used by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) according to the Section XI Code. The Code refers to several American Concrete Institute standards for completing an examination.



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