Robotic systems for retrieval of contaminated material from hazardous zones

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: Mechanical Engineering

Abstract

Both Korean and UK nuclear industries share the same challenge of accessing large radio-chemical process environments to perform remote intervention tasks. In particular, both UK and Korea have identified a significant need for unmanned systems which can handle and retrieve contaminated materials in zones which are too hazardous to risk manned entries.

This project will directly address this need by developing novel robotic systems which can enter, monitor, and carry out manipulative actions on a wide variety of objects and materials in nuclear decommissioning environments, which would otherwise remain inaccessible and unmanageable.

The UoB-KAERI-NNL consortium will develop hardware, software, algorithms and control methods for a mobile robot manipulator, comprising an unmanned vehicle equipped with an arm and end-effectors (which could include hands and-or cutting devices), which can enter hazardous environments, perform a wide variety of manipulation tasks on materials inside those environments, and retrieve objects from the environment in a controlled fashion.

Additionally, we will develop a smaller "child" pipe-climbing robot, which can ride on the mother vehicle and be deployed onto pipe-work (prevalent in many nuclear installations) via the mother vehicle's manipulator arm. The purpose of the child robot is to inspect zones which would otherwise be inaccessible in highly complex and 3D nuclear plant environments, for example to reach places that are high, narrow or cluttered. Additionally, cameras mounted on the child robot can provide useful alternative views of the mother-vehicle, facilitating autonomous "visual-servoing" control of the manipulator arm, and/or better tele-operative control by an expert human operator.

The control approach will be one of "semi-autonomy", "tele-autonomy" or "variable-autonomy" which would therefore go beyond what has previously been attempted in nuclear environments. Traditionally, safety-critical industries have been very conservative about allowing the devolution of control from human operator to an autonomous machine, and have instead relied on direct tele-operation (e.g. a human controlling each joint of a robot arm by means of switches or joy-sticks). However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the combination of i) the vast scale of the decommissioning task, and ii) the complexity and high degrees-of-freedom of the robots needed to perform decommissioning, means that certain kinds of autonomous control will be required as "operator-assistance" technologies. For example, a human operator should be able to mouse-click on an object, and have the robot autonomously grasp it, rather than the human attempting to control two or more mobile base motors, six or more arm motors and two or more gripper fingers directly.

Additionally, autonomous sensing approaches, such as 3D reconstruction of environments by computational vision, will be necessary for both situational awareness of the remote human operator, and automatic planning and control algorithms running on the robot. We will develop advanced computer vision and path-planning algorithms, which will enable collision-free navigation of the robot vehicle, and successful autonomous arm and hand trajectories to effect robust grasps on arbitrarily shaped objects and materials.

Furthermore, we will develop advanced dynamics models and control methods to facilitate highly dynamic robot actions, such as braciation or swinging of the climbing child robot, or forceful actions of the mother mobile-maniplator with respect to contacts with its environment, for example cutting and grinding of objects, or dragging of grasped objects.

The overall aim is to enable the safe, unmanned retrieval of contaminated materials from hazardous zones.

Planned Impact

Cleaning up the past half century of nuclear waste, in the UK alone (mostly at the Sellafield site), represents the largest environmental remediation project in the whole of Europe, and is projected to cost many tens of £billions. The worldwide decommissioning task is estimated to be in excess of $300billion. Much of this work can only be done by remote manipulation methods, because the high levels of radioactive material are hazardous to humans. Any country that possesses a nuclear plant, even without a current backlog of legacy waste, will face similar challenges when they begin decommissioning. The Republic of Korea currently has 23 nuclear reactors, and decommissioning is expected to start within 20 years.

This project will therefore deliver a number of key impacts:
1) It addresses the major UK societal challenge of cleaning up intolerable domestic legacy waste sites (impacting the UK population as a whole).

2) It enhances UK capabilities in decommissioning, where we have internationally recognised expertise, and which open up a >$300billion worldwide market to the UK economy (impacting the nuclear workforce in particular, and the overall UK economy more generally).

3) Robotics has been identified as "one of the 'eight great technologies' which will propel the UK to future growth" . This is thus a key emerging technology, where UK has internationally-leading research expertise. This project will cultivate and extend that expertise, as well as linking that expertise to a major practical industrial application (nuclear decommissioning) thereby creating an important pathway to impact for the nation's robotics achievements. I.e. impact on the UK robotics industry specifically, and the UK technology economy more generally.

5) It is a strong fit to the existing EPSRC portfolio, including:
i) The EPSRC DISTINCTIVE (Decommissioning, Immobilisation and Storage soluTIons for NuClear wasTe InVEntories) consortium, and;
ii) The EPSRC AIS (Autonomous and Intelligent Sysems) program, in which the UK nuclear industry is a major stakeholder.
I.e. impact on the UK nuclear science and robotics research communities.

6) We have proposed specific pathways to impact, through our collaboration with the UK subsidiary of a major global industrial robotics company. Much of the new robotics technology developed during the project can find direct route to market through this collaboration. Thus, the proposed research will directly benefit local industry, as well as enhancing the industrial robotics capabilities available to customers worldwide.

7) We have proposed significant educational outreach and public communication activities to run in parallel with the research, thereby directly engaging with the non-expert population, promoting public awareness of the nuclear industry, and promoting study and career interest from young people in robotics specifically, and science and engineering more generally.
 
Description During the first year of the project, we achieved the following research aims in accordance with proposed objectives:
1) Both UK and Korean partners have constructed similar mobile manipulator robots, comprising Dr. Robot Jaguar tracked vehicle with Schunk 7-axis arm and gripper. A much more powerful Taurob Tracker vehicle is currently being customised, and we wil move to this platform once it becomes ready in May 2016.
2) We have developed and experimentally evaluated (using rigorous human test-subject experiments) a variable autonomy control system for the robot. This system allows the human operator to switch between teleoperation (human drives the robot using joystick) and autonomous navigation (human clicks waypoints and the robot goes there autonomously). In both modes, we provide the human operator with situational awareness by real-time streaming of video feed from camera mounted on the robot, plus displaying the robot's position on a 2D map that is automatically acquired by the robot using its onboard laser scanner. A video of this system in operation can be seen here:
https://www.dropbox.com/s/zlavcj4joj3esso/iros16.mp4?dl=0

3) We have advanced the state-of-the-art in robot dynamics, with new publications about how to control a robotic arm which makes forceful interactions with its environment.
4) We have developed new stat-of-the-art methods in computer vision, including the most robust visual object tracking algorithm currently available. Visual tracking is needed to help the robot interact with objects in its environment, and also to help the mother robot (mobile manipulator) to track the child robot (KAERI pipe-climbing robot) and vice versa.

During the second year of the project, we have achieved the following research aims in accordance with proposed objectives:
1) A powerful Taurob tracked vehicle has been set up and controlled using our advanced control/navigation software.
2) Further advances have been made in remote vehicle control - two new papers published on training an AI to automatically switch between human and AI control of the vehicle (Ai takes control when human is distracted or not functioning well. AI pushes control back to the human when autonomous navigation is underperforming - e.g. when sensors become noisy due to radiation).
3) Further advances in robot vision have been achieved, with several papers in the most elite computer vision conferences.
4) Further advances in robotic manipulation have been achieved (robotic grasping, robotic detection and exploration of contacting surfaces and constraints, vision-guided robotic manipulation)
5) Exciting new results for dynamic grasping (useful for grasping from moving mobile-manipulator robot) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kzG-TxT4wd8
In final year of the project we have 1) continued to publish new methods for computer vision, robot vehicle navigation and robotic manipulation. We have also done higher TRL work by engaging in an InnovateUK-funded pre-commercial demonstrator project via the Birmingham team's spinout company A.R.M Robotics Ltd, in collaboration with project partner National Nuclear Lab Ltd, Bristol Robotics Lab and other SME companies. This showed proof of principle of a vision-guided mobile manipulator robot autonomously navigating and cutting pipework.
Exploitation Route We have made fundamental advances in variable autonomy control for mobile robots. This has numerous applications, including Bomb Disposal robots, planetary rover robots, rescue robots, fire-fighting robots, as well as robots for nuclear decomissioning.

Our advances in robot dynamics have numerous applications, including manufacturing industry, as well as nuclear decommissioning operations where the robot arm must interact forcefully with objects in the environment. We have demonstrated robotic cutting, and also solved fundamental hybrid force-position control problems that would be needed for grinding surfaces.

Our advances in computer vision have numerous applications: surveillance and forensic video analytics; video analysis for sports games; numerous applications in robotics and human-robot interaction.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Agriculture, Food and Drink,Construction,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Electronics,Energy,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Security and Diplomacy,Transport,Other

URL https://www.dropbox.com/s/zlavcj4joj3esso/iros16.mp4?dl=0
 
Description In addition to continuing our academic research, this project has had wider impacts, including: 1) An invited to visit US nuclear sites, participation in discussions between US robotics researchers and US Department Of Energy (DOE) and contribution to a US white paper on robotics for nuclear applications. 2) Contributed, via UK National Nuclear Lab, to Nuclear Decommissioning Authority robotics strategy. 3) Collaboration with National Nuclear Lab to form a UK national centre of excellence for nuclear robotics. This has now led to a new £10million 5 years Programme in nuclear robotics (£5.6million from EPSRC plus £4.5million external contributions). Further, has contributed to founding the new £42million National Centre for Nuclear Robotics hub led by U Birmingham. 4) Severalvisits to the Korean nuclear agency KAERI for collaboration discussions. 5) A reciprocal visit from KAERI to UK (and joint trip to NNL). Two visits by KAERI to present at nuclear workshop created by PI Stolkin at annual European Robotics Forum conference. 6) Extensive public communication of science and educational outreach - we have been feature on BBC Radio 4 discussing nuclear robotics, and have delivered a large number of visits to schools and educational activities for school children in collaboration with Royal Institution. During these activities, school children and teachers have learned about nuclear robotics challenges, and have had a chance to build and/or operate their own small robots of various kinds to attempt nuclear-related tasks (e.g. using a small robot arm to place simulated waste items in a hazardous storage container). 7) Collaboration with Bristol Robotics Lab InnovateUK SBRI project on mobile manipulation for nuclear decommissioning: https://youtu.be/qh_IQFllQBU
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Energy,Environment,Other
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Economic,Policy & public services

 
Description EPSRC Progamme Grant
Amount £5,789,803 (GBP)
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2017 
End 04/2022
 
Description National Centre for Nuclear Robotics RAI Hub
Amount £11,000,000 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/R02572X/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2017 
End 03/2022
 
Description Remote Sensing for Extreme Environments
Amount £1,749,326 (GBP)
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2017 
End 05/2020
 
Description InnovateUK SBRI collaboration - nuclear decommissioning robot 
Organisation National Nuclear Laboratory
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution University of Birmingham researchers, via our spinout consultancy A.R.M Robotics Ltd (a specialised robotics SME), collaborated with Bristol Robotics Lab, National Nuclear Lab, and several other SMEs, as part of an InnovateUK SBRI project. In this project we built and demonstrated a semi-autonomous mobile manipulator robot, which could autonomously navigate and cut pipework. The contribution of the Birmingham team was the advanced vision system and robot arm control.
Collaborator Contribution Bristol Robotics Lab assembled the robot platform, provided the semi-autonomous vehicle navigation software, and hosted the project demo. NNL Ltd provided project management and expert nuclear industry advice and guidance. University of Bristol provided expert advice on radiometric sensor payload for the robot. University of Essex provided expert advice about potential for making the onboard computer systems radiation resilient.
Impact Highly successful feasibility study. Delivered working prototype and successful live demonstration of autonomously navigating across a room, building up a 3D model of pipework, and autonomously cutting the pipe with a tool on a vehicle-mounted robot arm.
Start Year 2017
 
Description InnovateUK SBRI collaboration - nuclear decommissioning robot 
Organisation University of Bristol
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution University of Birmingham researchers, via our spinout consultancy A.R.M Robotics Ltd (a specialised robotics SME), collaborated with Bristol Robotics Lab, National Nuclear Lab, and several other SMEs, as part of an InnovateUK SBRI project. In this project we built and demonstrated a semi-autonomous mobile manipulator robot, which could autonomously navigate and cut pipework. The contribution of the Birmingham team was the advanced vision system and robot arm control.
Collaborator Contribution Bristol Robotics Lab assembled the robot platform, provided the semi-autonomous vehicle navigation software, and hosted the project demo. NNL Ltd provided project management and expert nuclear industry advice and guidance. University of Bristol provided expert advice on radiometric sensor payload for the robot. University of Essex provided expert advice about potential for making the onboard computer systems radiation resilient.
Impact Highly successful feasibility study. Delivered working prototype and successful live demonstration of autonomously navigating across a room, building up a 3D model of pipework, and autonomously cutting the pipe with a tool on a vehicle-mounted robot arm.
Start Year 2017
 
Description InnovateUK SBRI collaboration - nuclear decommissioning robot 
Organisation University of Essex
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution University of Birmingham researchers, via our spinout consultancy A.R.M Robotics Ltd (a specialised robotics SME), collaborated with Bristol Robotics Lab, National Nuclear Lab, and several other SMEs, as part of an InnovateUK SBRI project. In this project we built and demonstrated a semi-autonomous mobile manipulator robot, which could autonomously navigate and cut pipework. The contribution of the Birmingham team was the advanced vision system and robot arm control.
Collaborator Contribution Bristol Robotics Lab assembled the robot platform, provided the semi-autonomous vehicle navigation software, and hosted the project demo. NNL Ltd provided project management and expert nuclear industry advice and guidance. University of Bristol provided expert advice on radiometric sensor payload for the robot. University of Essex provided expert advice about potential for making the onboard computer systems radiation resilient.
Impact Highly successful feasibility study. Delivered working prototype and successful live demonstration of autonomously navigating across a room, building up a 3D model of pipework, and autonomously cutting the pipe with a tool on a vehicle-mounted robot arm.
Start Year 2017
 
Description InnovateUK SBRI collaboration - nuclear decommissioning robot 
Organisation University of the West of England
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution University of Birmingham researchers, via our spinout consultancy A.R.M Robotics Ltd (a specialised robotics SME), collaborated with Bristol Robotics Lab, National Nuclear Lab, and several other SMEs, as part of an InnovateUK SBRI project. In this project we built and demonstrated a semi-autonomous mobile manipulator robot, which could autonomously navigate and cut pipework. The contribution of the Birmingham team was the advanced vision system and robot arm control.
Collaborator Contribution Bristol Robotics Lab assembled the robot platform, provided the semi-autonomous vehicle navigation software, and hosted the project demo. NNL Ltd provided project management and expert nuclear industry advice and guidance. University of Bristol provided expert advice on radiometric sensor payload for the robot. University of Essex provided expert advice about potential for making the onboard computer systems radiation resilient.
Impact Highly successful feasibility study. Delivered working prototype and successful live demonstration of autonomously navigating across a room, building up a 3D model of pipework, and autonomously cutting the pipe with a tool on a vehicle-mounted robot arm.
Start Year 2017
 
Description National Centre for Nuclear Robotics 
Organisation University of Essex
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution U Birmingham (Stolkin) is the leader of this collaboration consortium.
Collaborator Contribution U Essex (Sensing in Extreme Environments grant) became a key member of NCNR and also brought NASA Jet Propulsion Lab to NCNR as a collaborator. Work done in UK-Korea Civil Nuclear Collaboration also contributed to us later winning NCNR, and brought Korean Atomic Energy Research Agency to NCNR as a collaborator.
Impact Engagement with large number of UK universities, very large industrial partnership, international collaborations, and parallel commercialisation projects with InnovateUK and SME companies.
Start Year 2017
 
Description Robotic systems for retrieval of contaminated material from hazardous zones 
Organisation Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute
PI Contribution KAERI is main partner in this UK-Korea Civil Nuclear Collaboration project. Our University of Birmingham robotics team is the UK partner and KAERI is the Korean partner. We are working on mobile manipulator control including: navigation of mobile vehicle, grasping and manipulation with robot arm, computer vision to assist with these tasks.
Collaborator Contribution KAERI team is mainly developing a pipe climbing robot. This robot could be deployed by the University of Birmingham mobile manipulator robot. It can climb up pipework to carry out inspections in nuclear sites - nuclear plants typically contain a huge amount of pipework, and large/very high rooms (or "caves") that would be inaccessible without pipe climbing.
Impact Two collaborative papers have been publsihed - co-authored by Uk and Korean partners. Two visits of UoB researchers to KAERI in Korea. One visit of KAERI researchers to UK, including visit to UK collaborator National Nuclear Lab Ltd to view the NNL/UoB robotics test-rig at Workington UK.
Start Year 2015
 
Description "Pint of Science" talk about robotics for nuclear decommissioning 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Pint Of Science talks http://pintofscience.com/ involve a scientist giving a talk to general members of the public in a local pub setting.

Our talk was about the use of robotics for nuclear decommissioning. It was extremely well received, and BBC Radio 4 attended leading to an interview broadcast nationwide.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL https://pintofscience.co.uk/event/robots-on-the-loose/
 
Description 2 invited talks at IEEE Tech Committee on Robotics for Nuclear Facilities at IROS 2015 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I was invited to give two invited talks at this workshop at IROS (one of the top international robotics conferences), organised by the IEEE RAS Technical Committee on Robotics and Automation for Nuclear Facilities.
1) Overview of robotics challenges in UK nuclear sites
2) Overview of our H2020 RoMaNS project and EPSRC UK-Korea project on nuclear robotics

These resulted in an invitation to attend a meeting in USA where roboticists were allowed to tour classified nuclear sites and contribute to a US white paper on robotics for nuclear decommissioning.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL https://ra4nuclearfacilities.wordpress.com/wokshops/
 
Description Interview on BBC Radio 4 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I gave a "pint of science" public talk about the use of robots for cleaning up nuclear waste. BBC journalists attended the talk and recorded an interview with me which was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 nationwide.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Invited talk at IET seminar Robotics in Extreme Environments 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I gave an invited talk about robotics for nuclear decommissioning, in which I highlighted the EPSRC UK-Korea project and also discussed our H2020 RoMaNS project which runs in parallel.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://conferences.theiet.org/extreme-robotics/about/index.cfm
 
Description Nationwide educational outreach work 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact We have collaborated with Royal Institution of Great Britain to deliver 14 masterclasses to both primary and secondary schools all over the country. We have also delivered a one week robotics summer school for 25 secondary school students aged 14-17.

During these activities, young people learn about the use of robots for cleaning up nuclear waste as well as other hazardous activities, build their own robots and/or control robotic arms and vehicles.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.rigb.org/whats-on/events-2015/august/summer-school-2015-introduction-to-robotics
 
Description Organised (competitively won) nuclear workshop at European Robotics Forum 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact We were competitively awarded (peer review) a prestigious workshop at European Robotics Forum. This attracted international speakers and a large audience. It is very difficult to win such workshops at ERF. This was first time that nuclear has been a workshop theme, and we were then able to win a nuclear workshop successively in 2017 and 2018.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Presentation to IEEE Technical Committee on Robotics and Automation for Nuclear Facilities (RANUF) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Invited talk for IEEE Tech,. Committee RANUF forum on robotics for nuclear applications.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Presentation to IEEE Technical Committee on Robotics and Automation for Nuclear Facilities (RANUF) at IROS 2017 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Invited talk at the nuclear forum at IROS international robotics conference. This forum/workshop created by IEEE Tech Committee on Robotics and Automation for Nuclear Facilities.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Royal Institution robotics summer schools 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Every summer we lead a one week robotics summer school at the London Mayfair premises of Royal Institution of Great Britain.
Typically we teach 24 students (aged 14-17) every year.
Students work in teams to design, build, program and demonstrate their own robots, motivated by the challenges of using robots to clean up the environemnt by safely disposing of nuclear waste, While building robots, students also receive mini lectures on AI, robot vision, manipulation etc., and also learn about how the maths and science they learn in school classroiom can be applied to solve practical problems with the robots they develop (e.g. Archimedes principle when designing their own underwater robots to retrieve objects from the bottom of a pool).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014,2015,2016,2017
URL http://www.rigb.org/whats-on/events-2016/august/summer-schools-2016-introduction-to-robotics
 
Description Won/led Nuclear workshop at European Robotics Forum 2017 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact We were competitively awarded (peer review) a prestigious workshop at European Robotics Forum. This attracted international speakers and a large audience. It is very difficult to win such workshops at ERF. This was first time that nuclear has been a workshop theme, and we were then able to win a nuclear workshop successively in 2017 and 2018.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Won/led Nuclear workshop at European Robotics Forum 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact We were competitively awarded (peer review) a prestigious workshop at European Robotics Forum. This attracted international speakers and a large audience. It is very difficult to win such workshops at ERF. This was first time that nuclear has been a workshop theme, and we were then able to win a nuclear workshop successively in 2017 and 2018.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018