The energy sector is frequently involved in carrying out industrial operations, regularly tasking maintenance and repair crews with challenging and potentially dangerous jobs. However, autonomous robots are increasingly being used to carry out maintenance and repair jobs in and around the energy sector.

Autonomous robots are being used in oil rigs, facilities, nuclear reactors, power generation sites, utility facilities and transmission sites. Energy companies are employing the use of autonomous robots across these sites, analysing data that prevents the robots from steering into dangerous obstacles, making logical decisions and carrying out tasks that would usually be too dangerous for humans.

These robots carry out checks on equipment and infrastructure inside facilities, reducing the hazards involved in sending employees to undertake such risky tasks.

Uranium-rich nuclear sites require decommissioning 

For example, autonomous robots are being tasked with carrying out radiation detection for a uranium-rich nuclear plant in Ohio.

These autonomous robots come in pairs, and will be utilised to identify uranium deposits inside pipes located within this former uranium enrichment plant for the US Department of Energy (DOE). The site spans an area of 3,778 acres. The robots will measure the levels of radiation being emitted from inside the pipes.

The plant was in operation between 1954 and 2013, producing enriched uranium. It is the largest under-roof facility under the banner of the DOE, with over 75 miles of process pipe. Measuring radiation levels has proven challenging over the past few years, with human workers manually taking 1.4 million measurements on the pipe.

What kinds of autonomous robots are used?

The two robots being developed for this task are called RadPiper. Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute has developed RadPiper for use at the decommissioning site from May 2018. The institute has significant experience in the development and implementation of robots for cleaning nuclear sites.

The robots crawl along the inside of the pipe, allowing them to take measurements of radiation levels with a higher accuracy compared to what is possible from the outside. The robots traverse the inside of the pipes using flexible pathways as they are not tethered, leveraging light detection and ranging (LIDAR) and fisheye cameras to identify any blockages.

Each foot-long section of the pipe is scanned using a disc-collimated radiation sensor – developed by the Carnegie Mellon Research Institute – by the robot as it crawls through to measure the levels of radiations; the sections with high-levels are detected, removed and then decontaminated. The sections that are the all clear of dangerous radiation are then safely demolished.

There the researchers hope that if the RadPiper robots are successfully used in this decommissioning project, they will be used in a similar nuclear plant in Paducah, Kentucky.

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