Spot the robot18 May 2021
Engineers from RACE are developing autonomous and remote handling systems for fusion energy, the nuclear industry and other sectors with hazardous environments. RACE’s Guy Burroughes answers questions about Spot, an agile mobile robot that resembles a dog, and how it can be used in the nuclear industry
Image: Spot (Photo credit: University of Bristol)
What is Spot and why is it relevant to the fusion and nuclear fission industries?
Spot is a four-legged, highly mobile canine-like robot, made by Boston Dynamics. It weighs about 30kg and stands just over a metre tall. Spot has five cameras – two at the front, one on each side, and one at the rear. It walks and moves like a dog, as it has flexible joints in both the knees and shoulders.
Instead of humans carrying out operations in areas where they might be at risk, you can send in Spot. Tasks such as remote inspections and improving operational awareness in real time can now be automated. You might want to find out what kind of equipment has been left behind in a storage facility, but cannot send a human inside because of the potential health risks from radiation exposure. This would be where you use Spot.
Spot can be operated remotely – and using its camera system you can get an idea of what’s inside without the risks or expense associated with humans entering. Or you could place Spot there and tell it to walk around twice a day. It can check whether things have moved out of place, for example, and flag that up.
RACE has purchased two Spots as part of the National Nuclear User Facility (NNUF) programme for ‘Hot Robotics’. Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the programmes aim is collaboration between UK academia and industry in researching robotics and artificial intelligence for nuclear environments.
The National Nuclear User Facility for Hot Robotics (NNUF-HR) is focused on accelerating research into the use of robotics and AI in nuclear environments, by providing opportunities to use cutting-edge equipment and expertise. Key areas of work include nuclear new-build, advanced modular fission reactors, future fusion power plants and cheaper and faster decommissioning systems,. Members include the Universities of Manchester and Bristol, RACE and the National Nuclear Laboratory in Cumbria.
What particular purpose does RACE want to use Spot for?
It’s worth noting that Spot is a very agile robot – all the weight is at its centre. Its legs are incredibly light and agile and that’s important when operating a robot remotely, particularly in a nuclear environment and with potential obstacles in its way. It is capable of carrying a 14kg payload, so it can be tailored to individual requirements.
At RACE, we have carried out testing ourselves to establish its suitability for nuclear environments, and Spot is more than capable of manoeuvring across tricky terrain. We sent Spot to walk over a standardised test area containing unstable wooden blocks, which sometimes moved when weight was placed on them. Spot was able to compensate for this and use its cameras to readjust and get back on its feet. It can also avoid obstacles in its path.
Boston Dynamics will also make available the Spot Arm – something we will test and decide how to use it in a nuclear decommissioning environment to pick up objects.
Why did Spot recently travel to Chernobyl? And are there plans to use it in other nuclear decommissioning projects?
As part of RACE’s involvement with NNUF, RACE loaned one of its Spot robots to Professor Tom Scott from the University of Bristol to carry out a survey at Chernobyl. They travelled out there with it and operated it around the old power plant. Spot helped to create radiation maps for some of those areas. They will help determine the level of radiation and health risks associated with a particular area of a facility.
Spot has a very small footprint compared to a robot on wheels, and so will not kick as much dust into the air, but even so we have to make sure dust doesn’t work its way into Spot’s components. To do this, some of UKAEA’s experts who manufacture specialist materials were able to make Spot a transparent plastic coat which it wore in Chernobyl.
In the future, there is potential for Spot to be utilised at nuclear sites to assist with their decommissioning work. Spot would be able to go into a waste storage facility and identify various radioactive materials – something vital to establishing what is safe and what is not. This is another advantage of Spot not having wheels. It would be more difficult for a wheeled robot to move over obstacles such as loose rubble, tools, gloves and cables. Spot can pass over such things easily, so you can send Spot into a container to look around the area, and record videos. If an operator wants to see something live, it’s possible to mount an infra-red camera on Spot’s back that live-streams.
Image: Spot at Chernobyl (Photo credit: University of Bristol)
Can other organisations ‘rent’ Spot from RACE?
Yes, if you have an idea such as a sensor you wish to deploy and test using Spot.
At RACE we also have facilities for testing a robot’s ability to navigate certain terrain or various obstacles. Academics and SMEs can apply to use Spot. For more information visit www.nnuf.ac.uk/hot-robotics
How does Spot operate? Does a human have to be in control via a tablet?
Spot can be operated on a tablet with a wi-fi connection. With the auto-walk mode, you can instruct Spot to carry out a walk-through of an area such as the perimeter of a storage container. Spot has the capacity to remember that and repeat the task. This would be useful for daily inspections required in nuclear decommissioning facilities.
Spot’s cameras also offer collision avoidance, so if an obstacle is in its path it can choose to avoid it. In a waste storage facility, Spot could be programmed to undertake daily walks for a long period of ten years or more. This obviously saves humans from doing this kind of time-consuming work.
Do you consider Spot to be a gamechanger for future fusion machines and for nuclear fission decommissioning?
Definitely. At the moment, other wheeled or tracked robots are expensive, less mobile on difficult terrain and hard to drive.
We have the skills and experience to use this kind of technology. RACE has more than 30 years of expertise in remote operations from its management of robotic maintenance systems for the Joint European Torus (JET) fusion device. This will be vital for research into robotics of the future, where an important area will be the focus on the design and delivery of ’digital twins‘. These are models with paired virtual and physical worlds, allowing highly detailed data analysis . Potential operational issues can be forecast. This is important for fusion: the interior and exterior environments of future fusion power plants will have to be remotely maintained using robotics and automation.
Using Spot will automate many of the tasks currently performed by humans and therefore avoid the need to think about things such as a risk assessment, or obtaining advice from a health physicist. Spot is safer and cheaper.
You talked earlier about uneven surfaces. How would Spot fare on ice, or on a slippery surface?
Boston Dynamics tested one of its earlier Spot models on ice and snow and showed that it can successfully navigate these kinds of surfaces. If Spot’s legs started to slip, it would simply move to re-adjust its position. And if it fell over, it would get back up. This is another advantage Spot has over wheeled robots.
Once the Spot Arm has been added, it can be used to retrieve items or move a camera inside a facility.
How could Spot be used in a potential fusion power station?
Fusion is a key research area for UKAEA and one where Spot will be used to further automation.
At the JET experiment in Oxfordshire, it can be used for collecting samples from inside the machine. This allows maintenance to be carried out remotely. At ITER, the international fusion project in France, there will be areas where humans will not be able to go, yet there is still a need for daily equipment inspections, maintenance or sensor checking.
For example, a camera might have been lost in an inaccessible part of the fusion facility. You would need to deploy a robot into that area rapidly to to look for it, and you may want a particular camera view of it.
The range of applications within fusion is huge. And what I found, as an engineer using it for the first time, was that Spot did not take hours of training to be confident operating it.
Guy Burroughes is a senior robotics and software engineer at the UK AEA’s RACE (Remote Applications in Challenging Environments) robotics test facility located at Culham Science Centre