A nuclear-focussed International Robotics Challenge was held in Australia on Thursday 23 November to demonstrate the important role robots can play in monitoring nuclear sites and capturing important data to prevent their misuse for the development of nuclear weapons.

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The Robotics Challenge is co-hosted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and CSIRO’s Data61, Australia’s leading data innovation network. It aims to demonstrate how robotics can be used to reliably undertake repetitive measurements of nuclear material in parts of nuclear facilities that may be difficult or unsafe for humans to access. The IAEA uses these important measurements to verify that countries are not misusing nuclear materials and facilities to develop nuclear weapons.

These measurements are part of a system of “safeguards” carried out by the IAEA to ensure countries adhere to international treaty commitments designed to and prevent illicit nuclear weapons programs.

The Robotics Challenge will see 12 teams from nine countries competing in two challenges categories — one task takes place on ground, and another on the surface of water — that simulate some of these vital inspection tasks normally undertaken manually by IAEA Safeguards Inspectors.

Andrey Sokolov, Technology Foresight Officer at the IAEA, said robots have the potential to carry out some of these inspection tasks currently conducted by inspectors.

“The Robotics Challenge aims to test the suitability of new robotic designs to help the IAEA fulfil some of its verification tasks more efficiently, freeing up inspectors to concentrate more on examining how facilities are being used. We’re excited to host this Challenge with the team of robotics experts at CSIRO’s Data61,” he said.

Professor Dr Alberto Elfes, Chief Research Scientist & Group Leader for Robotics at CSIRO’s Data61, said that in addition to nuclear safeguards, the organisation’s world-leading Robotics Research Group was already making an impact in industries such as aerospace, manufacturing, mining, oil and gas, biosecurity, and others.

“Robots have a multitude of game-changing applications across industry, and there are major safety, productivity and efficiency gains to be made from adopting them. Zebedee, our high-accuracy 3D laser mapping technology, was commercialised and is already being used around the world by 25 multinational organisations. It was recently trialled by the IAEA in nuclear safeguards inspections. Legged robots, in particular, are a key technology to traverse and sense dangerous or confined spaces in place of humans,” he said.

The Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO) of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is the regulatory authority responsible for nuclear safeguards and nuclear security in Australia. ASNO collaborates with the IAEA on the development of technology for nuclear safeguards.

Dr Robert Floyd, Director General ASNO, said: “The IAEA has decades of experience in verifying that nuclear facilities are being used solely for peaceful purposes, but its technology toolkit needs to adapt so it can keep apace with the challenge of inspecting more and more nuclear material within a reducing budget. IAEA Technology Challenges such as this have great potential to find solutions to better equip inspectors in their important task.”

Industries around the world are evolving at the intersection of digital technologies and physical environments. CSIRO’s Data61 is working closely with a network of government, corporates and academia — including the IAEA and ASNO — to apply world class robotics technologies to advance these industries and make them safer and more efficient.

About International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

Widely known as the world’s “Atoms for Peace” organization within the United Nations family, the IAEA is the international centre for cooperation in the nuclear field. The Agency works with its Member States and multiple partners worldwide to promote the safe, secure and peaceful use of nuclear technologies. The IAEA function that this robotics challenge is supporting is its safeguards role of ensuring nations abide by their peaceful use commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The IAEA Robotics Challenge

The Robotics Challenge seeks to automate common tasks undertaken by IAEA inspectors that involve making repetitive measurements in areas that can be difficult to access, or with elevated radiation levels. Two categories of robotic platforms are specifically considered for this technology challenge:

  • Challenge 1 Inspectors frequently use a small handheld optical instrument called the Improved Cerenkov Viewing Device (ICVD) to confirm the presence of spent fuel stored underwater. This challenge requires teams to mount this device inside a small robotised floating platform, which would autonomously propel itself across the surface of the pond, while stabilising the ICVD in a vertical position.
  • Challenge 2 Inspectors conduct a routine task that includes counting containers, recording their ID tags and performing gamma measurements on some of them. This challenge requires team to create small unmanned vehicles / robotised rolling platforms able to assist the inspector by performing the following tasks: moving autonomously across a storage area, counting items of a specific geometry, recording their ID tags, and carrying specific IAEA instrument payloads.

As a co-host, Australia will not take part in the Robotics Challenge but participating teams hail from around the world including Hungary, Republic of Korea, Israel, Switzerland, USA, UK, Canada, Germany and Finland. The winning team will have the chance to receive funding and commercialise their technology through the IAEA.

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Images

  • In a warehouse, a large group of people stand in a semi-circle with several small robots positioned in front of them.

    The Robotics Challenge seeks to automate common tasks undertaken by IAEA inspectors that involve making repetitive measurements in areas that can be difficult to access, or with elevated radiation levels.

    Download image
  • A woman works with a robotic device in a water tank.

    Inspectors frequently use a small handheld optical instrument called the Improved Cerenkov Viewing Device (ICVD) to confirm the presence of spent fuel stored underwater. This challenge requires teams to mount this device inside a small robotised floating platform, which would autonomously propel itself across the surface of the pond, while stabilising the ICVD in a vertical position.

    Download image
  • Two men kneel behind a caterpillar tracked robotic device.

    The Robotics Challenge is co-hosted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and CSIRO’s Data61, Australia’s leading data innovation network.

    Download image

Additional information

About Data61

CSIRO’s Data61 is Australia’s data innovation network that transforms existing industries and creates new ones through the application of science and technology. As an applied R&D partner, Data61’s capabilities range from cybersecurity, confidential computing, IoT, robotics, machine learning and analytics, software and programming to behavioural sciences and more.

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