Robotics, automation, and digital twins are at the centre of a new research and development partnership between the UK and Japan. The aim is to aid the complex and hazardous process of decommissioning old or dangerous nuclear facilities.

Britain and Japan have signed a new R&D deployment deal to help automate nuclear decommissioning and some aspects of fusion energy production, according to an announcement from the government this week.

The alliance will see new robotics and automation technologies applied to both fusion research and decommissioning spent facilities in Japan and the UK.

Extreme environments, such as nuclear decommissioning (power stations and waste from nuclear weapons), offshore/deep-sea engineering, and space exploration, are core markets for robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence, according to Robotics & AI in Extreme Environments, a 2019 Expert Missions report from Innovate UK.

That report explains that many extreme or hazardous environments share the same challenges: dangerous or lethal locations; poor visibility; navigation problems; tough atmospheric factors; radiation and other hazardous emissions; and communication barriers that make real-time operator control of machines difficult.

“For this reason, autonomy spells opportunity for innovators that can develop trustworthy control systems. Put simply, robotics and autonomous systems are the only means of carrying out some tasks safely and efficiently – or at all – in extreme environments. Because those environments share so many challenges, the economic payback could be considerable.”

According to this week’s announcement, a £12 million UK-Japanese robotics project, LongOps, will support the delivery of faster and safer decommissioning at the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors in Japan and at Sellafield in the UK, using long-reach robotic arms.

LongOps also deploys digital twin technology – virtual models of real-world facilities, in which the pairing of virtual and physical worlds allows for real-time data analytics and predictive maintenance.

In this case, specially developed software will allow humans to see how robots can best be controlled in real-time during remote operations in hazardous facilities.

As the Innovate UK report explains, some degree of autonomous operation is often essential in extreme environments, to compensate for communication barriers between humans and robots. Any latency or communications breakdown during hazardous operations could be dangerous, so robots are often programmed to work independently.

The four-year collaboration announced this week will be funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI, the parent organisation of Innovate UK), the UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), and Japan’s Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).

The Atomic Energy Authority’s Remote Applications in Challenging Environments (RACE) facility in Oxfordshire will lead the project, design the strategy, and deliver new robotic capabilities.

Knock-on benefits will include employment opportunities, advances in fusion-adjacent technologies, and the up-skilling of UK and Japanese scientific and engineering capabilities, says the announcement.

Japan and the UK have partnered in robotics research since a joint 2016 seminar at the Japanese Embassy in London, at which both countries announced new research funding for the technologies.

In 2018, the NDA and Innovate UK launched a £8.5 million competition to develop new technologies for nuclear decommissioning. At present, it is slow, dangerous manual work, which costs the UK an estimated £2 billion a year – expenditure that is forecast to continue at a similar level for 100 years.

Robotics and automation in this field therefore represent a £200 billion savings opportunity, while creating new revenue streams and employment potential.

Amanda Solloway, UK Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, said,

“To unlock the amazing potential of nuclear power, it is critical that the UK works hand in hand with international partners to safely decommission nuclear sites, while backing pioneering research into fusion, which could offer a limitless source of clean energy.

“This innovative research alliance with Japan will ensure we share our expertise in robotics to address complex challenges such as nuclear decommissioning, while helping to secure highly skilled jobs across the country as we build back better from the pandemic.”

Andrew Tyrer, Challenge Director for Robots for a Safer World at UKRI, added,

“This landmark international collaboration between the UK and Japan will spearhead significant progress into the complex challenge of nuclear decommissioning.

“That these nuclear decommissioning operations were selected as the focus of UK-Japanese robotics collaboration, including UK engineers developing technology for use in Fukushima, highlights the UK’s world-leading strength in this sector.

“The UK’s strength has been accelerated in recent years by the Robots for a Safer World challenge from the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.”

  • Alongside the organisations mentioned above, the UK runs two robotics hubs that are dedicated to nuclear research: the National Centre for Nuclear Robotics, based at the University of Birmingham, and the Robotics and Artificial Intelligence for Nuclear hub (RAIN), at the University of Manchester.

The UK also hosts two other extreme environments robotics hubs: Offshore Robotics for Certification of Assets (ORCA), based at Heriot-Watt University, and the FAIR-SPACE hub at the University of Surrey, which researches new opportunities for robotics in space.