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Robotics in Nuclear Verification: Sparking Innovation Through Crowdsourcing

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Dimitri Finker, Technology Foresight Specialist in the IAEA’s Department of Safeguards, discusses the potential for robotic design to aid nuclear verification. (Photo: D. Calma/ IAEA)

On the margins of the IAEA General Conference today, representatives from over 25 countries discussed innovative ideas on how the field of robotics can contribute to nuclear safeguards and verification. This event comes two months before the end of the third Robotics Challenge, a crowdsourcing initiative aimed at discovering new technologies that could be used to enhance the IAEA’s work in this area. 

IAEA nuclear safeguards inspectors often need to take repetitive measurements in places that are difficult to access and/or may have elevated radiation levels. Robotics has the potential to assist nuclear safeguards inspectors to reach higher levels of effectiveness and efficiency.

“Collecting data in the field is an area of safeguards work that is manual and resource intensive, both for the IAEA and for the operator,” said Dimitri Finker, Technology Foresight Specialist in the Department of Safeguards. “The use of robotics could free up inspector time to focus on analyzing data.”

The first crowdsourcing challenge, held in 2016, focused on identifying enhanced image processing techniques for an existing safeguards instrument, the Improved Cherenkov viewing Device (ICVD). The ICVD is used to verify spent fuel after its removal from the reactor core and transfer to underwater storage, known as ‘spent fuel ponds’. The ICVD filters out all light except for some of the ultraviolet light (referred to as the Cherenkov glow) emitted by spent fuel when underwater. This allows safeguards inspectors to confirm that the declared number of spent fuel assemblies is present.

In November 2017, twelve teams from Canada, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Israel, South Korea, Switzerland, the UK and the USA demonstrated the ideas they submitted to the second Robotics Challenge. At the event, co-hosted by the IAEA and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s (CSIRO) Data61, Australia’s leading data innovation network, teams competed in two categories: on the ground, aimed at performing gamma measurements, and floating on water, aimed at performing spent fuel verification underwater.

Three proposals for a floating platform were identified for potential use. The robots floating on water showed clear potential in navigating the water surface while taking clear photos to verify that the spent fuel is present and accounted for.

“Robots have a multitude of game-changing applications across industry, and there are major safety, productivity and efficiency gains to be made from adopting them,” said Alberto Elfes, Chief Research Scientist and Group Leader for Robotics at CSIRO’s Data61.

The third Robotics Challenge will conclude this autumn with a final field test. The winning team’s technology will then be considered for use in safeguards verification activities.

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