Rise of the robots

Dave Burns explains how the nuclear sector is embracing autonomous technologies

There is a proven case in favour of advancing automation across several industry sectors, with factors such as skills shortages, operational resilience and process optimisation key considerations for many UK manufacturers that embed robotic capability within their operations. But aside from optimising existing production processes, there are also scenarios in which only robots can be used, owing to the high-risk factors posed to humans – such as hazardous waste management in the nuclear sector.

Legacy nuclear waste management has for some time relied upon automated robotics, as a means to deliver benefits and reduced risks in decommissioning sites across the UK. Though it is no longer simply a case of handling nuclear waste; there exist a plethora of tasks and activities associated with the safe and efficient sorting and storage of legacy waste that can’t be undertaken by manual means. As such, the automated applications that are being developed to support legacy nuclear waste management initiatives are evolving.

Robot periphery such as end-of-arm tooling, linear units and energy supply systems assist in increasing the efficiency and functionality of automated robotics systems. Mobile robots are increasing the working envelope of automated cells, and software such as vision provides a powerful tool for object recognition. These and many other complementary technologies are coming to the fore, as automation delivers several benefits that are contributing towards the successful, safe and cost-effective delivery of decommissioning programmes.

Such tools are supporting the acceleration of decommissioning initiatives, such as dexterous tasks, those previously undertaken by humans, which can now be executed by robots. In doing so not only has risk been removed from such processes, but the speed of task execution has also been improved. Robots don’t need to take breaks from volatile environments for health and safety reasons, break for lunch or go on holiday. As such, those applications that are now becoming commonplace can operate 24/7, and those individuals who may have once been responsible for undertaking such activities are being upskilled or reskilled and taking the roles of robot programmers, able to operate the robotic technology in safety, away from where hazards may exist.

Autonomous Applications

Sorting and storing legacy waste is both complex and dangerous, and the need to ensure the safe, long-term containment of waste is critical, as is staff safety. As such, applications such as bolting and swabbing are now fully autonomous at some facilities. Robots remove bolts, remove/replace waste, re-apply bolts and swab container exteriors for leakages before mobile robots transfer containers to storage facilities/locations. And, whilst the metallic bodies of the robots aren’t easily impacted in radioactive environments, their circuit boards are. These control panels can be located remotely, away from the robots in an invulnerable location, so the robots can continue to undertake their tasks in the hazardous area.

In a bid to enhance capabilities, continued developments of automated applications within the nuclear sector will occur. Artificial intelligence, sensor technology and the evolution of end-of-arm tooling will enable decommissioning, one day, to become fully autonomous.

Dave Burns is with KUKA

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