RNE: Robotics for Nuclear Environments

Developing next-generation Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS)
to meet critical nuclear challenges


RNE was a five-year collaborative research programme that brought together robotic and nuclear engineering experts to make the step changes in RAS capability that were needed to overcome the challenges facing the UK and international nuclear industries.

The programme was supported by partners spanning the nuclear supply chain and established the UK as a world leader in the development and deployment of RAS technology across the entire nuclear cycle: reactor operations, new build reactors, decommissioning and waste storage.

It was envisaged that the programme would also have a significant impact in areas of robotics other than nuclear: space, sub-sea, mining, bomb-disposal and healthcare, for instance. Cross-sector initiatives ensured that there was two-way traffic of knowledge and technology between all potential beneficiaries of the programme’s research.

The programme was funded by The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, industrial partners and the Italian Institute of Technology.

Funding bodies

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

The research partners

Four top institutions supported by key project partners

The University of Manchester (Lead) has the most advanced nuclear research capability in the UK, much of it focused around the irradiation capabilities at the Dalton Cumbrian Facility and its decommissioning research unit in West Cumbria.

Bristol Robotics Laboratory is the largest operation of its type in the UK, with a 4,000m2facility and its own on-site SME specialist incubator. The Laboratory has world-class expertise in multi-robot collaboration and human/robot interaction.

The University of Birmingham is a leading UK institution for nuclear research and has one of the country’s foremost robotic groups. It bridges the gap between the nuclear expertise of Manchester and the robotic expertise of Bristol.

The National Nuclear Laboratory has vast experience across the whole nuclear fuel cycle and a history of deploying robots in hazardous nuclear environments. The Laboratory has a range of unique facilities for experimental robot deployment.

The programme’s key members have leading roles in various national and international bodies including IEEE RAS, IET, UKACC, Northern Robotics Network and the IEEE Technical Committee on Robotics and Automation for Nuclear Facilities (RANUF).

The programme’s support partners

Italian Institute of Technology / Nuclear Decommissioning Authority / Network Rail / National Physical Laboratory / EDF Energy / Ricardo Group / KUKA Robotics / FIS360 / Nu Generation / Forth Engineering / Schlumberger

Programme Overview

Tackling problems of huge importance

Nuclear decommissioning and the safe disposal of nuclear waste are massive global challenges. Carrying out this work just in the UK represents the largest environmental remediation project in the whole of Europe.

Such a massive task is made even more daunting by the extreme environments encountered in many legacy facilities. These may contain radiological, chemical, thermal and other hazards, restricting access by humans and necessitating the use of robots to complete many jobs.

Unfortunately, current robotic technology is not capable of doing a lot of what will be required. Even straightforward tasks such as turning valves on and off, navigating staircases and moving over rough terrain can be problematic.

The five-year research programme has been created to address these issues. The programme’s brief is both extremely clear and immensely challenging – to make major scientific and technological advances to nuclear robots in a very short timescale.

Research will be carried out across the home institutions and at the Dalton Cumbrian Facility, in west Cumbria, which has strong links with the nuclear industry.

What the research programme will do

The programme’s researchers will focus on:

Improving robot power systems / Improving processing capabilities / Improving sensing / Improving communication systems / Improving grasping / Improving manipulation / Improving computer vision / Improving perception

An important factor across all research activity will be the autonomous capability of many of the robots – they will be able to operate independently, without direct supervision by humans.

Permanent robotic research hub

In addition to its own research, the programme will directly create a multi-institutional, multi-disciplinary robotic research hub in West Cumbria, the centre of much of the UK’s nuclear industry. This will be sustainable beyond the programme’s lifetime and will be uniquely able to deliver advanced robotic technologies that address the many vital, real-world nuclear challenges.

Research Background

The decommissioning challenges facing the nuclear industry in the coming decades are immense. Much of the waste that needs cleaning up is very old and the quantities involved are vast. The UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority estimates that in this country there are 290,000m3 of intermediate level waste alone.

The problems created by such a backlog are not only formidable, they are also pressing. Many of the UK’s nuclear facilities, including test reactors and fuel re-processing plants, are in urgent need of attention, with the Decommissioning Authority describing some of them as ‘intolerable risks’. Yet current decommissioning work is barely making an impression on the situation.

The lack of progress is down to one key factor: the decommissioning tasks are largely being performed by a manual workforce of people who, however skilled, cannot go into many areas because of either the danger to life or very narrow access ports. Moreover, they are mostly equipped with dated mechanical manipulators and receive only rudimentary robotic support.

Working in such conditions is stressful, physically demanding, awkward because of the need to wear protective clothing and a potential health risk. This is not the way to proceed.

Robots in the nuclear industry

Whilst robotics have transformed the manufacturing sector, they have not been taken up by the nuclear industry to anything like the same extent. There is a good reason for this: manufacturing robots operate in environments that contain few uncertainties and perform tasks that are highly repeatable. Legacy nuclear facilities, on the other hand, have often been closed off for many decades and are frequently poorly understood, with inventory records and design drawings either incomplete, erroneous or unavailable. Typically, these decommissioning environments are unstructured and extremely uncertain, requiring robots to perform tasks that will vary according to the conditions encountered. This makes them completely unsuitable places for modern industrial robotic solutions.

The only way to overcome these numerous decommissioning issues is through major technological advances leading to a new generation of robots with skills not yet available. This is the job that the research programme will undertake.

New nuclear power stations

The UK plans to build new nuclear power stations and an advanced geological disposal facility. In addition, it is to invest significant resources in nuclear fusion technology. The robotic advances that are the research programme’s objective will not only benefit legacy decommissioning but will also ensure the successful operation of these new facilities and avoid the creation of complex decommissioning challenges for future generations.

Research Objectives

Structure of the research programme’s project themes, partners and areas of collaborative research intersection

The research programme will be delivered through four interconnecting themes. Each team will focus on one theme. Themes 1 – 3 will concentrate on developing novel robot technologies while theme 4 will provide rigorous performance evaluation methodologies.

Theme 1, The University of Manchester

  • Develop both ground and submersible robot platforms that can enter extreme environments through constricted access ports whilst sustaining sufficient energy source and sensor payloads to solve industry-critical problems.

  • Develop the necessary low-level systems to enable ground and submersible robots to navigate reliably and predictably around nuclear environments, autonomously if necessary. Systems to cover aspects such as communications, positioning, fault-tolerant controls.

Key People

Professor Barry Lennox

Dr Simon Watson

Dr Keir Groves

Dr Farshad Arvin

Dr Wei Cheah

Theme 2, Bristol Robotics Laboratory

  • Create effective team-working algorithms together with planning systems that are shared, robust and enable heterogeneous robots (or robots and humans) to work as a team to address nuclear-related challenges
  • Recognise the necessity for robotic systems to be risk-aware
  • Develop new and powerful robot-embedded, online behaviour risk assessment systems to ensure safe and effective operation at all times

Key People

Professor Tony Pipe

Professor Alan Winfield

Professor Manuel Giuliani

Dr Paul Bremner

Jennifer David

Dr Tom Bridgewater

Dr Craig West

BRL previous work on telepresence using a robot:

Theme 3, The University of Birmingham

Develop the advanced computer vision and multi-sensor algorithms needed for a wide range of functionality:

  • 3D modelling and recognition of objects and scenes
  • Object and scene understanding at the semantic level
  • Object tracking and fluence understanding in dynamic scenes and in extremely complex, cluttered and uncertain environments

In addition, develop advanced manipulation methods that exploit robotic perception capabilities:

  • For autonomous grasping of arbitrarily-shaped objects of varying material properties (rigid, flexible fragile, tangled)
  • For task-relevant trajectory planning
  • For sensor-informed arm and mobile manipulators operating in environments containing obstacles
  • For analysis of dynamics and new methods of controlling forceful interactions between a robot and its environment (such as cutting, shearing, grinding, pulling and twisting)

Key People

Professor Rustam Stolkin

Dr Vijaykumar Rajasekaran

Dr Mohammed Talha

Theme 4, National Nuclear Laboratory

  • Scenarios, demonstrators and test deployments
  • Several critical industry-defined scenarios have been identified for tackling in years one – three
  • Based on progress in the first three years, results and future industry needs, further scenarios will be defined for years four and five.
  • For each scenario, mock-up environments will be built and benchmark datasets created for performance evaluation. In addition, performance evaluation metrics will be defined for sensor systems, robots and the humans that control them. These will be accompanied by realistic robotic test deployments.

Key People

Dr Steve Shackleford


Research programme and methodology

In keeping with the philosophy of the EPSRC Programme Grant scheme, detailed research plans will be provided for years one to three but years four to five will be left somewhat open ended to give flexibility. By the time the last two years have been reached, various requirements will be better understood to aid planning – for instance, the extent of new build needs, long term storage needs and the need for fusion research.

Some of the difficulties the research programme will need to overcome

  • High consequence environments, with extreme radioactive, thermal and chemical hazards.
  • Limited access, with entry often only available through narrow ports.
  • Thick concrete walls introducing significant communication difficulties that necessitate increased requirements for autonomy, currently unavailable to industry robots.
  • The need to inspect, grasp, manipulate and dismantle a huge variety of objects and materials.
  • Exploration, mapping and modelling of unknown or partially known extreme environments.
  • Requirement for multiple sensing modalities, including radiological, chemical and thermal.
  • A variety of locomotion methods are needed: underwater vehicles, airborne vehicles, and ground-based vehicles which must navigate complex terrains and complex 3D installations.
  • Powerful, precise, multi-axis manipulators needed with complex multimodal sensing capabilities.
  • Need for variable robot supervision, from tele-immersion to autonomous human-robot teamwork.
  • Critically damaging effects of radiation on electronic systems.

Key Publications from the RNE Programme

Model Identification of a Small Omnidirectional Aquatic Surface Vehicle: A Practical Implementation

Groves K,Dimitrov M,Peel P, Marjanovic O and Lennox B. (2020)
2020 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS)

Watch the video presentation here.

Preliminary Evaluation of an Orbital Camera for Teleoperation of Remote Manipulators

Talha M, and Stolkin R, (2019)
2019 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS)

MallARD: An Autonomous Aquatic Surface Vehicle for Inspection and Monitoring of Wet Nuclear Storage Facilities

Groves K, Lennox B, West A, Gornicki K, Watson S, Carrasco J, (2019)
Robotics, 8(2), 47

On Proactive, Transparent and Verifiable Ethical Reasoning for Robots

Bremner P, Dennis, LA, Fisher M & Winfield, AF, (2019).
Proceedings of the IEEE, 107(3), 541-561

Limitations of wireless power transfer technologies for mobile robots

Cheah, W, Watson, S and Lennox, B, (2019)
Wireless Power Transfer, accepted subject to minor corrections

Ethical standards in robotics and AI

Winfield AF, (2019)
Nature Electronics, 2(2), 46-48

Embodiment of an Aquatic Surface Vehicle in an Omnidirectional Ground Robot

Lennox, C, Groves, K, Hondru, V, Arvin, F, Gornicki, K, Lennox, B, (2019)
IEEE International Conference on Mechatronics

A Debris Clearance Robot for Extreme Environments

West, C, Arvin, F, Cheah, W, West, A, Watson, S, Giuliani, M, Lennox, B, (2019a)

Development of a Debris Clearance Vehicle for Limited Access Environments

West, C, Cheah, W, Rajasekaran, V, West, A, Arvin, F, Watson, S, Giuliani, M, Stolkin, R and Lennox, B, (2019b)

Singularity-Robust Inverse Kinematics Solver for Tele-manipulation

Ortenzi, V, Marturi, N, Kumar, V, Adjigble, M, Stolkin, R, (2019)
IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters, accepted

Model-free and learning-free grasping by Local Contact Moment matching

Adjigble M, Marturi N, Rajasekaran V, Ortenzi V, Corke P, Stolkin R, (2018)

Choosing Grasps to Enable Collision-Free Post-Grasp Manipulations

Pardi T, Ghalamzan A, Stolkin R, (2018)
IEEE-RAS Humanoids

Feature and Performance Comparison of the V-REP, Gazebo and ARGoS Robot Simulators

Pitonakova L, Giuliani M, Pipe A, Winfield A. (2018)
TAROS, Bristol

Reactive Virtual Forces for Heterogeneous and Homogeneous Swarm Exploration and Mapping

Bridgwater T, Winfield AF, Pipe T (2017)
In Gao Y., Fallah S., Jin Y., Lekakou C. (Ed.), Towards Autonomous Robotic Systems. TAROS 2017. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, Vol 10454. Cham:Springer.

Social Media

Videos and webinars are available on the RNE YouTube Channel