Experts from the University of Manchester are designing AI-powered machines tough enough to work safely in hostile places.
The aim is to develop a new generation of smart robots that can be trusted to think and act for themselves in some of the most hazardous places on Earth – and beyond.
‘Hot robotics’ in nuclear
‘Hot robotic’ systems were originally designed to work in radioactive environments found in decommissioned nuclear reactors – but future assignments for this type of super machine will include deployment in nuclear fusion power, the offshore energy sector, agriculture and even outer space, according to the experts.
Manchester experts are applying AI technologies to ‘hot robotics’ as they will increasingly need to act independently of human operators as they enter a range of danger zones to carry out highly complex tasks.
Improving robot autonomy is an incredibly important challenge to the nuclear industry as it means the technology can be used to deliver safer, faster and cheaper decommissioning of legacy power stations and other radioactive facilities at sites such as Sellafield and Dounreay.
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To support this challenge, the Robotics and AI Collaboration (RAICo) has been established in Cumbria as a joint research programme between The University of Manchester, the UK Atomic Energy Agency (UKAEA), Sellafield Ltd, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and the National Nuclear Laboratory.
The aim is to develop advanced robotic and AI solutions and transfer these to sites across the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s estate in the UK.
‘Next generation’ of technology
Academic engagement in RAICo is being led by Professor Barry Lennox and his team at The University of Manchester. This group leads the RAIN (Robotics and Artificial Intelligence for Nuclear) hub and is also part of the Manchester Robotics and AI Centre.
‘The inclusion of AI is because the goal is to develop automated systems that can operate much more efficiently than if they were operated by people,’ explained Barry Lennox. ‘Within RAICo we are looking at how to improve the operation of remote manipulation and inspection systems.
‘We’re helping Sellafield and other nuclear end-users to develop the next generation of remote surveying and handling equipment so they can improve their operations.’
The Manchester-led RAIN group has built up their expertise after pioneering a series of resilient robotic systems to carry out work in many of the UK’s decommissioned nuclear power stations – doing work that is too dangerous for humans.
Professor Lennox explained: ‘The prefix ‘hot’ was introduced because we were interested in deploying the robots into active environments – but we’re now looking to expand the hot so it can refer to more general applications, including the space, agriculture and offshore sectors. Many of the challenges are similar, although the robots may end up looking a bit different.’
Manchester’s expertise in AI and robotic technologies will be showcased on June 14 as part of a symposium that will put a spotlight on the National Nuclear User Facility Hot Robotics programme.