Robots Are Totally Going To Save Us From Nuclear Disasters

Robots Are Totally Going To Save Us From Nuclear Disasters
Image: The Simpsons

The International Robotics Challenge was held in Sydney last week, and showed off just how good our future robot overlords are.

They might even save us from a Fallout-esque future, by monitoring nuclear sites and taking a closer look at data to make sure people aren’t casually making some nuclear weapons on the side. It’s a little more involved than pressing the “Y” key continually, though.

The Robotics Challenge is co-hosted by the International Atomic Energy Agency and CSIRO’s Data61. The point of the event is to show how robotics can be used to take reliable, repetitive measurements of nuclear material in parts of nuclear facilities that would otherwise be difficult or to get to. The measurements are used by the IAEA to verify that countries aren’t misusing nuclear materials and facilities to develop nuclear weapons.

These measurements are part of a system of “safeguards” carried out by the IAEA to make sure countries are abiding by international treaty commitments that are designed to prevent illicit nuclear weapons programs.

The recent Robotics Challenge had 12 teams from nine countries competing in two challenges categories — one on the ground, the other on the surface of water. These are supposed to simulate some of the inspection tasks IAEA Safeguards Inspectors normally do manually.

Andrey Sokolov, Technology Foresight Officer at the IAEA, said robots definitely have the potential to carry out some of these inspection tasks currently conducted by inspectors.

“The Robotics Challenge aims to test the suitability of new robotic designs to help the IAEA fulfil some of its verification tasks more efficiently, freeing up inspectors to concentrate more on examining how facilities are being used.” Sokolov said.

Professor Dr Alberto Elfes, Chief Research Scientist, and Group Leader for Robotics at CSIR’’s Data61, said that in addition to nuclear safeguards, the organisation’s world-leading Robotics Research Group was already making an impact in industries such as aerospace, manufacturing, mining, oil, gas and biosecurity.

“Robots have a multitude of game-changing applications across industry, and there are major safety, productivity and efficiency gains to be made from adopting them,” Dr Elfes said.

“Zebedee, our high-accuracy 3D laser mapping technology, was commercialised and is already being used around the world by 25 multinational organisations. It was recently trialled by the IAEA in nuclear safeguards inspections. Legged robots, in particular, are a key technology to traverse and sense dangerous or confined spaces in place of humans.”

The Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO) of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is the regulatory authority responsible for nuclear safeguards and nuclear security in Australia. ASNO collaborates with the IAEA on the development of technology for nuclear safeguards.

Dr Robert Floyd is the Director General of ASNO, and says the IAEA has decades of experience in verifying that nuclear facilities are being used solely for peaceful purposes.

“But its technology toolkit needs to adapt so it can keep apace with the challenge of inspecting more and more nuclear material within a reducing budget,” Dr Floyd revealed. “IAEA Technology Challenges such as this have great potential to find solutions to better equip inspectors in their important task.”

Industries around the world are evolving at the intersection of digital technologies and physical environments. CSIRO’s Data61 is working closely with a network of government, corporates and academia — including the IAEA and ASNO — to apply world class robotics technologies to advance these industries and make them safer and more efficient.