Hungarian Company Wins IAEA Robotics Challenge

The challenge sought to find innovative ways to enhance in-field inspection activities that are the core of IAEA's nuclear verification work.

An unmanned surface vehicle that was designed by a group of Hungarian engineers has won the International Atomic Energy Agency's Robotics Challenge, which IAEA launched in 2017. The design was selected by the IAEA after a thorough evaluation of design and performance by its experts, the agency announced March 18.

The challenge sought to find innovative ways to enhance in-field inspection activities, which are the core of IAEA's nuclear verification work. IAEA reported that some of the most common tasks undertaken by its nuclear safeguards inspectors involve making repetitive measurements in locations that can be difficult to access and/or have elevated radiation levels, so robotics has the potential to play a useful role in them.

The inspectors frequently use a small hand-held optical instrument called the Improved Cerenkov Viewing Device to confirm the presence of spent nuclear fuel stored underwater, where it is typically placed for cooling following its removal from the reactor core. The job of inspectors is to verify whether the amount of fuel stored matches the amount declared by national authorities and that none of it has been removed and potentially diverted from peaceful use. Currently, safeguards inspectors need to hold the device from a gantry suspended above a spent fuel pool and manually peer through a lens at the individual fuel assemblies, of which there can be hundreds at a time.

Through the challenge, IAEA sought designs that could mount the newly developed neXt Generation Cerenkov Viewing Device, which is capable of providing digital recording, inside a small, robotized floating platform that would autonomously propel itself across the surface of a spent fuel pool. By stabilizing the XCVD in a vertical position, the unmanned vehicle could provide clearer images faster, to aid nuclear safeguards inspectors in verifying the spent nuclear fuel.

More than 300 submissions responded to the challenge. Of the 12 proposals selected for demonstration, three designs were tested in a real-world setting. "For the final phase of the Robotics Challenge in November 2018, the designs underwent real-world testing in a spent fuel storage pool at a nuclear power plant in Finland," said Dimitri Finker, Technology Foresight Specialist at IAEA's Department of Safeguards. "This gave our experts the chance to review the merits of each design and to evaluate which of them suited safeguards operational needs, had safety considerations built-in, and gave the best image quality for verification."

IAEA will now work with its Member States, nuclear facility operators, and the designers of the winning vehicle to finalize the design and ensure it is compliant with all applicable requirements and regulations. Pending this, IAEA will seek authorization from its Member States to use the vehicle in the field.

"We're very happy that our design was chosen from among such a strong competition. To be able to contribute to nuclear non-proliferation efforts and the important verification work of the IAEA is very exciting," said Peter Kopias, owner and CEO of Datastart, the winning company. "The Robotics Challenge required a creative engineering solution. I’m delighted our unique design met the needs of the users."

IAEA's latest challenge, the IAEA Tomography Reconstruction and Analysis Challenge, looks to improve the verification process of spent nuclear fuel with advanced data processing techniques. Online registration is now open, with a deadline of May 6, 2019, for submission of entries.

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