Research team will use drones to assess nuclear plant damage

By Patrick C. Miller | March 27, 2018

A team led by the Southwest Research Institute (SWRI) in San Antonio, Texas, is developing drone technology to assess damage inside Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, damaged by an earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

The SWRI’s engineers are helping adapt drones to operate autonomously inside the station’s containment vessels to gather information important to decontamination and decommissioning efforts at the plant.

Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. contracted with SWRI to explore the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) within the containment vessels. Engineers from the institute are working with the General Robotics Automation Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Lab at the University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering and Applied Science.

“This is a formidable challenge,” said Monica Garcia, project manager and senior research engineer in SWRI’s Intelligent Systems Division. “The conditions inside the containment at Fukushima Daiichi are quite possibly the most challenging environment that the SWRI-Penn team has had to address. We will be pushing the envelope in terms of the technology.”

In March 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and a tsunami with estimated wave heights of 42 feet struck the power station, initiating a series of events that ultimately caused three reactors to fail. Since then, a number of ground- and underwater-based robotic systems have been sent inside the containment. However, damage and high radiation levels have limited access to information needed for decontamination and decommissioning.

“The team is adapting high-speed, advanced mobility drones to collect key information about the current status,” said Richard Garcia, technical lead and SWRI senior research engineer. “This information will play an important role in future decontamination and decommission efforts at Fukushima Daiichi.”

The team successfully demonstrated the core feasibility of their approach in a test fixture at SWRI’s San Antonio campus late last year. During Phase 1 of the project, the team also verified that the UAS components could survive the harsh radiation conditions within the containment.

“As robots get smaller, faster, and smarter, this is exactly the kind of problem we want them to address,” said Vijay Kumar, dean of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. “Challenges like this are what push research in our field forward.”