A new generation of smart robots is being developed at The University of Manchester. These new AI-powered machines will be designed to think and act for themselves in some of the most hazardous and toughest places on Earth — and beyond. These robots will be challenged to carry out work too dangerous for humans.
‘Hot robotic’ systems were originally designed to work in radioactive environments found in decommissioned nuclear reactors. But future assignments for this type of super machine will include deployment in nuclear fusion power, the offshore energy sector, agriculture, and even outer space.
Manchester experts are applying AI technologies to ‘hot robotics’ as they will increasingly need to act independently of human operators as they enter a range of danger zones to carry out highly complex tasks.
An important challenge in the nuclear industry is to improve robot autonomy so that the technology can be used to deliver safer, faster, and cheaper decommissioning of legacy power stations and other radioactive facilities at sites such as Sellafield and Dounreay.
To support this challenge, the Robotics and AI Collaboration (RAICo) has been established in Cumbria as a joint research program between The University of Manchester, the UK Atomic Energy Agency (UKAEA), Sellafield Ltd, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and the National Nuclear Laboratory. The aim is to develop advanced robotic and AI solutions and transferring these to sites across the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority's estate in the U.K.
Academic engagement for RAICo is being led by Professor Barry Lennox and his team at The University of Manchester. This group leads the RAIN (Robotics and Artificial Intelligence for Nuclear) hub and has built up their expertise after pioneering a series of resilient robotic systems to carry out work in many of the U.K's decommissioned nuclear power stations.
Professor Lennox explained: “The prefix ‘hot’ was introduced because we were interested in deploying the robots into active environments — but we're now looking to expand the hot so it can refer to more general applications, including the space, agriculture, and offshore sectors. Many of the challenges are similar, although the robots may end up looking a bit different.”
Enhancing the AI capability of these machines is the next big challenge for his team, added Lennox. “AI introduces lots of additional problems related to ensuring that the AI will do what we expect it to do and not cause damage or risk the safety of humans.”
Expanding beyond nuclear decommissioning, the Manchester-led RAIN team is also establishing joint programs of work with the UK Atomic Energy Authority to support them in the development of robotic systems for nuclear fusion reactors.