Essex part of exciting new £42m flagship nuclear robotics centre 

  • Date

    Thu 9 Nov 17

Professor Klaus McDonald-Maier

We are delighted to part of a consortium of eight universities which has secured £42million of new investment to fund the National Centre for Nuclear Robotics (NCNR).

NCNR is developing state-of-the-art robotics, sensing and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to address the major challenges posed by nuclear environments and materials.

The £42 million initiative, led by the University of Birmingham, has been co-funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, research institutions, industrial collaborators and investment partners.

Cleaning up the UK’s 4.9 million tonnes of nuclear waste is the largest and most complex environmental remediation task in the whole of Europe. Much of this work must be done by robots, because the materials are too hazardous for humans, however, many of the necessary robotic solutions have not yet been developed.

A photo of Professor Klaus McDonald-Maier, from the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering, standing next to a large red and black Baxter robot.)
A photo of Professor Klaus McDonald-Maier, from the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering, standing next to a large red and black Baxter robot.

Essex’s role in the Centre is to research the effects of radiation on the electronics of robotic systems and develop new methods for increasing the resilience of the electronics systems hardware and software, to provide resilience and robustness against radiation damage. This work will be an active collaboration between Essex, partners and Essex’s long-term collaborators at Caltech’s NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 
Professor Klaus McDonald-Maier, from the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering who is leading the Essex side of the project, said: “This National Centre for Nuclear Robotics is a very significant investment of the UK government into robotics and AI and we are delighted to be a key part in such a flagship research programme.

“The overall aim for the work we are leading is to extend lifetimes and increase reliability of sensors processing and robotic control systems in radioactive environments, which is an important factor that has hampered deployments of robots in these environments in the past."

In addition to reliability and resilience of embedded systems, the team at Essex, which includes  Dr Shoaib Ehsan, will also be making a strong contribution to the Centre through its expertise in computer vision for robot's understanding of its surroundings, for mapping the area it is deployed in and for localising itself in an unknown environment.

As well as decommissioning legacy nuclear sites, robotic systems are also needed for monitoring, maintenance and plant life extension (PLEX) in the UK’s current fleet of operating nuclear power stations. Robots will also be an essential element in the design of new-build reactors. The nuclear industry is increasingly keen to embrace advanced robotics technologies, to make complex operations, in hazardous environments, safer, faster and cheaper.

The NCNR establishes the UK as an international leader in transferring state-of-the-art robotics and AI research advances into practical solutions for a safety-critical and high-consequence industry. The research has an international outlook, supported by highly cross-disciplinary teams of renowned researchers spanning Europe, USA and Asia.

In addition to research, the NCNR will create opportunities for education and career development of a large new nuclear robotics work-force, with a near-term target to train 65 new nuclear roboticists. Driven directly by the needs of industrial end-users, NCNR will embed the latest research advances directly into both large corporations and cutting-edge SMEs, spanning both the robotics and nuclear sectors.

The work of the NCNR will also enhance UK capabilities in decommissioning - improving the UK’s economic opportunities for technology and consultancy export to a worldwide market valued at £1trillion. UK decommissioning is expected to take more than 100 years, with current annual costs exceeding £3 billion. Hence, speeding up decommissioning, by introducing advanced automation methods, will translate into enormous national expenditure savings.

Led by, Professor Rustam Stolkin from the University of Birmingham, the other project partners are the universities of Bristol, Edinburgh, Lincoln, West of England, Lancaster and Queen Mary.
The award is part of the government’s £93 million of funding for the robotics and AI in extreme environments programme through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, which was announced in the Budget of April 2017.

The programme aims to develop robotic solutions to make a safer working environment in industries such as off-shore energy, nuclear energy, space and deep mining, increase productivity and open up new cross disciplinary opportunities, not currently available.

Professor Philip Nelson, EPSRC Chief Executive, said: “These new Robotics Hubs will draw on the country’s research talent to nurture new developments in the field of robotics and provide the foundations on which innovative technologies can be built. The resulting outcomes from this research will allow us to explore environments that are too dangerous for humans to enter without risking injury or ill-health. The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund is helping us achieve a joined up approach to research, discovery and innovation.”

Ruth McKernan, Chief Executive of Innovate UK, said: “These pioneering projects driven by the very best minds in UK research and industry exemplify the huge potential of what can be achieved through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and the long-term benefits for the UK economy. These are just the first competitions in robotics and AI, there will be further opportunities for businesses in the coming months.”