Using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for Environmental Monitoring

Development as Part of IAEA Action Plan on Nuclear Safety

IAEA officials and staff were treated to a demonstration of the capabilities of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or drone in connection with a consultancy meeting on using UAVS for rapid environmental monitoring that took place at IAEA headquarters from 14 to 17 May 2013. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

It's a sight you don't often see at the headquarters of the IAEA in Vienna.

With a whirr of its 6 rotors and a puff of dust, a remote-controlled vehicle takes off and hovers above the heads of Agency officials and staff, and then flies along a pre-determined path.

The cylindrical, clover-shaped aerial vehicle with a mounted camera on board is one of the latest breed of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) - commonly known as "drones" - available today. The demonstration was held as part of a consultancy meeting on the parameters for using UAVs for rapid environmental monitoring held at IAEA headquarters from 14 to 17 May 2013.

The consultancy meeting was organized by the IAEA's Physics Section within the framework of the IAEA Action Plan on Nuclear Safety. One of the aims of the Action Plan is to ensure the ongoing protection of people and the environment from ionizing radiation by facilitating the use of available expertise and techniques for environmental monitoring. The meeting was attended by environmental mapping and UAV experts from Germany, Japan, Switzerland and the USA to review and evaluate the current state of detector technology and methods, particularly in relation to aerial surveys and existing UAV technology.

"This consultancy meeting is the first step in a IAEA Nuclear Safety Action Plan project to prepare the ground for the development of a UAV-based system for rapid environmental monitoring," Ralf Bernd Kaiser, Section Head of the IAEA Physics Section, explains.

Sessions during the four-day meeting featured specialist reports on the experience with aerial mapping including the use of UAVs, as well as reviews of detector technology, in particular mobile gamma spectrometry. These sessions provided the needed backdrop for evaluating project needs with present-day capabilities of commercial UAV technologies and radiation detector technologies.

Lighter and equipped with Global Positioning System (GPS) and battery technology developed for smart phones, today's UAV systems can fill an important gap between walking surveys and manned aerial inspections. They are already widely used for other kinds of environmental monitoring, including air pollution and video surveillance.

"For environmental mapping, unmanned UAVs can be deployed to monitor hard to reach areas where the level of contamination is unknown, and establish whether you can actually send in people," Mr. Kaiser said.

The final sessions of the consultancy meeting will focus on drafting the technical specification parameters for using an unmanned aerial vehicle for environmental mapping surveys of dose rate and radionuclide identification. In addition, experts will also draw up technical specifications for using these UAVs in combination with detector systems for low-level airborne gamma spectrometry.

The options and recommendations of the consultancy meeting will be presented during a stakeholder meeting scheduled to be held in Japan. After the meeting in Japan, the UAV (or UAVs) best suited for the application will be procured and the detector system(s) will be developed. "Our goal is to have a system for testing by the coming year," Mr. Kaiser said.

Last update: 2 November 2014