VIDEO WATCH: Engineers with EM's Calcine Retrieval Project at DOE's Idaho National Laboratory Site pilot a light detection and ranging-equipped drone inside a test facility at the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center. The training prepares the engineers to fly the drone inside a high-level radioactive waste vault to map its interior.

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho – For decades, the nuclear industry has used remotely operated drones to photograph building exteriors and take radiation measurements safely.

EM’s Calcine Retrieval Project (CRP) at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) Site is progressing toward what is likely to be a first: flying a light detection and ranging-equipped drone inside a high-level radioactive waste vault to map its interior.

Three CRP engineers recently completed the first step towards earning their drone pilot wings by successfully piloting the drone inside a test facility at the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center (INTEC) and then inside a more confined space within the facility as part of their training provided by the drone manufacturer.

“Learning to fly an expensive, high-performance drone can be very stressful,” said CRP engineer Kevin Young, who arranged the training. “Trainees Cody Hidalgo, Todd Smith and Chad Philips demonstrated a high level of skill, confidence and professionalism while learning to operate the drone. There were no crashes, and at the end of the day, all three were competently maneuvering the drone around obstacles and through very tight spaces within the test facility.”

VIDEO WATCH: An overview of EM's Calcine Retrieval Project at the Idaho National Laboratory Site. 

The training served as initial practice for a complicated mission planned for this fall. Engineers will fly the drone inside a waste storage vault at INTEC that houses a set of four cylindrical bins, known as Bin Set 1, that contain 220 cubic meters of a granulated high-level radioactive waste called calcine.

The waste will ultimately be transferred using pressurized air from Bin Set 1 to Bin Set 6, allowing Bin Set 1 to be closed under federal regulations. Once the mission is complete, data collected by the drone will create a detailed map of the piping and other obstructions within the concrete vault to prepare for positioning waste removal equipment.

The lightweight, carbon fiber-caged drone with automated flight stability features is designed to safely bounce off obstructions inside the vault and remain flying while mapping the vault’s interior.

“Mapping the inside of this vault is a challenging problem,” said Young. “The vault is not designed for human access, and even if it were, the radiation levels are way too high for a person to go inside. Using the drone is the safest and most cost-effective solution for getting the data we need.”

In addition to developing a retrieval system for calcine removal from Bin Set 1, the CRP team is responsible for developing a strategy to retrieve, treat and repackage an additional 4,200 cubic meters of calcine from five other bin sets. All calcine must be ready to leave the state of Idaho by 2035 in compliance with a 1995 Idaho Settlement Agreement milestone.