Funding for waste-handling robotics development

25 February 2015

A project to develop new robotic techniques for use in the autonomous handling of radioactive wastes is among those recently selected for funding by the European Commission.

In January, the European Commission announced the first robotics projects to receive funding under the Horizon 2020 program. The list of 17 projects includes medical and rescue robotics, industrial and service robotics as well as cognitive interaction and precision agricultural techniques.

One of the selected projects is to develop new technology for "mixed autonomy for tele-manipulation" for use in the sorting and segregation of legacy radioactive waste.

The three-year 'Robotic Manipulation for Nuclear Sort and Segregation' (RoMaNs) project will receive a total of €6.4 million ($7.3 million) through Horizon 2020. The project - scheduled to begin in May - is a collaboration between the UK's University of Birmingham and the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL), with France's Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies Commission (CEA) and the National Centre for Scientific Research, together with the Technische Universität Darmstadt in Germany.

The research will focus on robotic arms, hands and sensing systems including: developing new kinds of robotic hardware and mechanisms, new kinds of interfaces for human-controlled (tele-operated) robots, and new artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms for vision, sensing, planning and control to enable the robots to execute grasps and manipulative actions autonomously.

According to the University of Birmingham, robots currently used in the nuclear industry have had each individual joint or motor controlled remotely by a human via a joystick or push buttons. "Such an approach is not viable in the long-term because it is prohibitively slow for processing the vast quantity of materials," it said. "Increasing the amounts of AI and autonomy capabilities in the robots will be needed to enable timely clean-up of the vast quantities and complexities of the UK legacy waste inventory."

The university added, "Legacy waste containers must be cut open and their contents sorted to extract and segregate the most highly contaminated objects. Such waste contains a huge variety of objects and materials, ranging from rubber gloves and suits to pieces of fuel rod casing to contaminated tools and rubble. This huge variety of sizes, shapes and material types poses an enormous challenge to the vision and perception systems and control algorithms needed to enable robots to autonomously understand the scene and plan, execute grasps and manipulative actions on arbitrarily shaped objects."

Project coordinator Rustam Stolkin said, "This is an excellent combination of academic and industry partners, which aims to create very exciting technologies which can be applied worldwide across an enormous sector with enormous societal impact." He said, "For academics, this is a chance to develop truly cutting edge robotics technologies, for an application that has tremendous societal impact and urgency - cleaning up the environment and saving human operators from exposure to hazardous radioactive waste. For the industry, this is also a significant step forward."

Stolkin, of the University of Birmingham's school of mechanical engineering, added: "This project will develop a major new autonomous robotics test-bed facility at NNL, help fund the creation of jobs for a new generation of robotics pioneers in the industry, and go a long way towards promoting autonomous robotics methods to industry leaders and managers."

The Horizon 2020 research and innovation program was launched by the European Commission in late 2013 with a seven-year budget worth almost €80 billion ($91 billion). The program is intended to help "boost Europe's knowledge-driven economy and tackle issues that will make a difference in people's lives."

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News