Robotic snake shows its ability in fusion challenge

31 May 2022

A new laser-welding robotic "snake" developed by the UK Atomic Energy Authority's (UKAEA) robotics research centre has demonstrated its capability to operate inside nuclear fusion plant pipework in trials at the Culham Science Centre near Oxford.

The DEMO snake in UKAEA's video (Image: UKAEA)

The snake - which is now patented technology - has been developed by UKAEA's RACE (Remote Applications in Challenging Environments) in a GPB2.7 million (USD3.4 million), seven-year project. The snake will be delivered as part of EUROfusion's DEMO programme, which will be the successor to the ITER fusion device which is currently being built in southern France.

The robot has been developed to tackle the problem of connecting pipework inside fusion machines, which must be done remotely because of the hazardous environment. DEMO is extra-challenging because of limited working space, UKAEA Lead Mechanical Design Engineer Tristan Tremethick said. The DEMO snake - which will be deployed and operated remotely inside a hazardous environment without being touched by humans, and can also work effectively in pipes packed together, with little space for access - operates inside of the pipework to make best use of the cramped space available.

The project also involved creating an ultrasonic sensor-system to move the snake up and down the pipe to identify each precise working location. A separate launch system gets it inside the pipework remotely.

"Ultrasonic sensors enable the snake to find the correct position, where it then clamps to the pipe and performs the weld from the inside. After the weld, the tool retracts and is removed from the pipe where it can be redeployed," Tremethick said.

"Robots are a key part of our mission to deliver low carbon fusion energy, and we need to become skilled in controlling machines like this one remotely. That's because they will be used to maintain fusion energy power plants."

RACE was established by the UKAEA in 2014, and works to provide complete solutions to enable operations and protect people in challenging environments in sectors such as petrochemical, space exploration, construction and mining as well as nuclear. It has also developed a laser cutting tool operating on the same principles as the snake and both can potentially be used for other industry applications, it said.

UKAEA has also released a video showing the snake in action.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News