The UK has launched a combined robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) hub for the atomic energy sector, according to an announcement from the government this week.

Known as RAICo1, the hub is based in Whitehaven, Cumbria, and will be used to develop and test technologies for safe nuclear decommissioning. It will be part of a new network of multidisciplinary hubs. 

The facility is close to the former Sellafield power station, which now processes the bulk of radioactive waste from the UK’s active nuclear sites. 

Although described by the government as the UK’s first combined AI and robotics hub, that is not the case: the Robotics and Artificial Intelligence in Nuclear (RAIN) Hub, an academic consortium based at Manchester University, has been working in this space for some years. 

The new RAICo1 hub will be used by Sellafield Ltd, its partners, and academic researchers to not only develop systems for Sellafield, but also for similar sites. Successful innovations would have significant export potential for the UK.

The announcement said, “By offering the ability to test technology in environments that mirror those on the Sellafield site, such as gloveboxes and water tanks, the facility removes some of the challenges associated with working on the nuclear site itself.”

Nuclear waste is a serious challenge worldwide as it is dealt with largely by hand – a slow, expensive, wasteful, and dangerous process – then needs to be safely stored. For example, spent nuclear material from Sellafield will remain radioactive for 100,000 years. 

Developing remotely operated or autonomous robots to aid in nuclear decommissioning has long been a priority for the UK. And it is set to become even more important as the government announces a new nuclear programme, alongside investment in renewable resources, to ensure greater energy independence.

So-called extreme-environment robotics – systems for use in hazardous or lethal areas such as nuclear decommissioning (including of ageing warheads), space (satellite maintenance and interplanetary exploration), subsea engineering (of pipelines and cables), offshore maintenance (of wind farms and other energy platforms), and deep mining – were recognised as a key opportunity in the Industrial Strategy. As a result, numerous projects were backed by the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, via Innovate UK and UKRI.

In the long term, it’s conceivable that autonomous or even humanoid robots – such as NASA’s Valkyrie, which is being developed to assist humans on Mars – may have applications in hazardous environments on Earth. But that will only happen if the technology is developed to an advanced enough stage to work safely and reliably in dangerous conditions, where any error could have disastrous consequences.

Safe autonomy will be essential in some extreme environments where communications between a remote operator and robot may be delayed (such as by the long distances in space, for example) or difficult (because radio signals may not propagate, such as in sea water). Robots that can achieve mission objectives autonomously without real-time operator control will be important, therefore, and the Mars rovers are current examples of this.

Technologies in development for nuclear decommissioning today include robotic hands and grippers, vision systems, sensors, and remote inspection vehicles, though systems that have ‘cross-cutting’ potential – applications in more than one use case – are favoured by technologists and investors as the long-term payback is greater.

RAICo1 itself is a joint initiative developed by Sellafield Ltd and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), in collaboration with the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), Manchester University, and the National Nuclear Laboratory.

As such, it appears to be a separate initiative to the UK’s four existing robotics hubs, including RAIN and the National Centre for Nuclear Robotics (NCNR), which is based at the University of Birmingham.

Head of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence at Sellafield Ltd, Rav Chunilal explained, “A big factor is where RAICo1 is situated, in Whitehaven itself, at the heart of our community. We see it bringing in skilled people, but we also see it as being fundamental to developing skills in the area too.”

Sellafield’s Chief Operating Officer, Rebecca Weston, added, “We know we can deliver the UK’s nuclear decommissioning challenge safer, faster and at less cost by using robotics and artificial intelligence.

“RAICo1 is a real step towards achieving that. It brings together the owners of the challenges with the people who have the ideas and technology that can solve them.”

Rob Buckingham, Director of Remote Applications in Challenging Environments at the UKAEA’s own robotics facility, explained, “UKAEA and NDA need remotely operated tools that are efficient, reliable, cost-effective and re-usable.

“The next generation of robotics and smart machines will deliver our mission faster, cheaper, and at lower risk. Learning together, in collaboration to avoid duplication, has to be the best way.”

In related news, Dounreay Site Restoration Ltd (DSRL) and Manchester’s RAIN Hub are testing a new inspection robot capable of entering and moving around in areas that are inaccessible or unsafe for humans to work in.

The new, second-generation Lyra robot is a remotely operated vehicle packed with LiDAR, cameras, radiation probes and other sensors, plus a manipulator arm.