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A prototype Rad Piper radiation-detecting robot at the end of a test pipe inside Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute in Pittsburgh. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Robotics pioneers from Carnegie Mellon University, who made their mark in the aftermath of the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear disasters, are revisiting their heritage with a cutting-edge new robotics project at former U.S. Department of Energy nuclear facilities.

William “Red” Whittaker and his team at Carnegie Mellon’s Field Robotics Center have developed two new robots, dubbed “RadPiper,” that can drive autonomously through pipes at former nuclear plants to detect and measure uranium deposits on the interior walls.

This detection is a key step in the process of decontaminating, decommissioning and ultimately dismantling former nuclear facilities, but the process is difficult and dangerous for humans. Traveling inside the pipes and using advanced sensors, the RadPiper robots are also far more accurate than the current method of detecting radiation from outside the pipes.

The Department of Energy paid CMU $1.4 million to develop the robots.

Taking into account labor costs and overall efficiency, the robots could save tens of millions of dollars at sites where they’re deployed, based on U.S. Department of Energy estimates.

Red Whittaker, director of the CMU Field Robotics Center, describes the radiation-detection technology used in the “RadPiper” robots. GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop

At a time when automation is stoking fears about robots taking jobs from people, Whittaker cited the RadPiper robots as an example of machines doing work that humans don’t want, and shouldn’t have to perform.

“This will transform the way that the measurement of uranium holdup deposits in pipes will be done for all time,” Whittaker said in an interview in his office at Carnegie Mellon, referring to nuclear material left over inside pipes, lines and other equipment at processing plants.

The CMU robots will be deployed initially at a former uranium enrichment plant in Piketon, Ohio, and then at a similar plant in Paducah, Ken. Other facilities where such robots could be used include the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C., and the Hanford Site in Richland, Wash.

One of the “RadPiper” robots. (Carnegie Mellon University Photo)

The Piketon, Ohio, facility, known as the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, has been closed since 2000 after producing enriched uranium since 1954. It has more than 75 miles of pipe, and it has taken three years for human crews to find and measure uranium deposits.

The RadPiper robots, which operate without a tether on flexible tracks, will go inside pipes that are 30 inches and 42 inches in diameter. To help them navigate, the robots use a version of the LIDAR technology that has been popularized in self-driving cars, as well as a fisheye camera. The on-board “disc-collimated” radiation sensor was tested at the Portsmouth facility last year, and CMU says it’s seeking a patent on the instrument.

Whittaker and his colleagues are known for their early work developing robots for the cleanup of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, and subsequent milestones such as their victory in the $2 million DARPA Urban Driving Challenge in 2007. Multiple startups and landmark robots have emerged from their work. One of Whittaker’s spinoff companies, Astrobotic, pursued the $3 million Google Lunar X PRIZE.

Reflecting on his decades in the field, Whitaker made it clear that he still delights in “bringing these kinds of machines out of the primeval ooze.” Given the potential impact of the RedPiper robots and the importance of decommissioning nuclear plants, Whittaker said he wouldn’t be shocked to ultimately look back on this project as one “one of the big three” of his career.

The RadPiper robots are scheduled to show up for work at the Ohio facility in May.

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