Autonomous Robots Lab in College of Engineering integrating perception and intelligent systems into robotic vehicles
By Mike Wolterbeek
Cleaning up old nuclear waste sites around the country is a long, expensive and dangerous process – and autonomous robot research at the University of Nevada, Reno promises to help that process with a combination of advanced, intelligent, autonomous aerial and ground robots with a new level of perception, navigation and planning abilities.
The College of Engineering’s Autonomous Robots Lab, under the direction of Assistant Professor Kostas Alexis, has completed a proof of concept for an aerial robot, a drone, that flies by itself in dark corridors looking for nuclear radiation and toxic chemicals.
“We’ve designed and built an aerial robot with multi-model mapping capabilities that includes inertial sensing, LiDAR, cameras with synchronized flashing LEDs, as well as sensors for radiation and chemical sensing to localize itself and comprehensively map its environment in very high quality,” Alexis said. “Basically, it flies itself into a dark corridor, maps the area, including complex structures such as tanks or barrels, and simultaneously finds radioactive areas or toxic chemicals using a variety of sensors. It learns the environment – the space, the contents and the dangers – and reports back to us.”
The intelligent aerial robot runs on algorithms the team programs to give it active perception, use what it needs to navigate, remembers important areas and allows production of high-resolution multi-modal 3-D maps of the area that show the level of radioactivity and toxic chemicals, if any. Their work is part of a National Robotics Initiative project funded by the Department of Energy to clean up the legacy sites of the Manhattan project that have been shuttered for decades.
The information will be used by the Department of Energy to build a clean-up plan based on what the autonomous robots locate, analyze and map.
“Specifically, we are hoping that we can enable the autonomous multi-modal mapping of the PUREX tunnels where multiple train cars are holding nuclear waste,” he said.
The majority of the clean-up work is conducted by human workers in protective clothing with consequences of cost, inefficiency, exposures and inability to access many places that matter. There is a need for robotically and autonomously acquiring, integrating and utilizing radiological, chemical, thermal, spatial and visual data of the inaccessible facilities.
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Read the rest of the article at unr.edu.