PIKETON, Ohio – The Radpipers moved at what their creators called an “impressively efficient pace” — up to 10 feet per minute — within the 30-inch and 42-inch-diameter uranium enrichment process pipes. That may seem like a crawl, but it’s what the multitasking robots do while they’re on the move that’s impressive.
During a recent demonstration at the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, technicians easily monitored the tracked robots by handheld tablet as they autonomously negotiated obstacles in the plant’s pipes and generated reports using visual imaging and analysis of data from radiometric and distance-measurement systems. In all, two robots accurately collected data on more than 300 feet of enrichment piping, providing precise geometric models of obstructions, uranium deposits, and pipe interiors.
According to the EM/Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) team, which primarily developed the Radpiper, the system performed “unprecedented, safe, efficient, economic, (and) quality” analysis of residual uranium material in the piping during the demonstration.
The robots and the pipe crawling activity measurement system are being prepared to be commissioned for deployment into the Portsmouth X-333 Process Building’s enrichment “cascade.” The cascade is where uranium hexafluoride was processed for 50 years to separate the uranium isotopes that supported U.S. national security and later commercial energy.
The robotic system is intended to replace the numerous measurements performed using handheld equipment by teams working on elevated platforms underneath and above the miles of process and bypass piping in the cavernous process buildings. When deployed, the Radpiper will improve worker safety and quality of the measurements, lower costs, and shorten the building deactivation schedule.
The Radpiper could also be used in the process buildings of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Kentucky, and members of the Radpiper integrated project team believe robots could be useful elsewhere in EM cleanup.
“Once again, a demonstration at Portsmouth has helped fine-tune the DOE-contractor-academia cooperative that’s served as our robotic technologies test bed for the past two years,” said Rod Rimando, director of EM’s Technology Development Office. “We look forward to putting these Radpipers to work on EM’s next major decommissioning project at Portsmouth in the very near future.”
Chuck Whittaker, CMU field robotics specialist and staff engineer for the Radpiper project, calls the technology the latest example of automation reducing errors and resulting in more efficiency.
“It’s the whole concept of being able to solve a problem, which is the automation and the investigation of these pipes in a way that has not been done before,” Whittaker said. “Because the idea of being able to do the measurements and automate the reporting and the analysis are the things that need to be done.”
Bobby Fuhr, an employee with EM cleanup contractor Fluor-BWXT Portsmouth (FBP) Environmental Remediation/Analytical Services, said the demonstration is a key step toward implementation.
“The demonstration was a major part of the effort for turning the project from a developmental effort to a more finalized production prototype unit,” Fuhr said.
Twenty-five representatives from EM, FBP, the Savannah River National Laboratory, and Paducah Site watched or participated in the demonstration. It was the latest in a series involving a dozen research institutions and a consortium of private industry and labor, including Portsmouth United Steel Workers Local 689, that has tested and demonstrated 24 robotic technologies as part of EM’s science of safety and robotic technologies initiatives.
Robert Edwards, manager of EM’s Portsmouth/Paducah Project Office, said robotics will become a more integral and common component of the EM tool box with technological developments like the Radpiper.
“We believe this effort will lead to further deployment of robotics technology,” Edwards said. “That we could be using this system on the deactivation of the remaining Portsmouth process buildings, to be followed by Paducah’s, bodes well for safely accelerating the ultimate cleanup of the gaseous diffusion plants.”