Faster, cheaper, safer, better. Companies are constantly searching for more efficient and affordable options to perform routine and hazardous tasks in an industrial environment. Self-navigating drones could be the solution, but configuring them to maneuver indoor spaces without a strong GPS signal can be expensive.

Utilizing advanced imaging analysis and QR codes, researchers at Idaho National Laboratory (INL) developed a new cost-effective method to make standard drones with cameras capable of autonomously performing jobs around a nuclear power plant.

Drones equipped with INL’s new Route Operable Unmanned Navigation of Drones (ROUNDS) software can be used to automate tedious tasks at power plants or factories to improve operational efficiencies, lower costs, and reduce the risk of workplace injuries.

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Idaho National Laboratory's ROUNDS: Remote Operable Unmanned Navigation of Drones.
Video courtesy of INL

How it Works

ROUNDS software is simply installed on a standard computer that communicates wirelessly with the drone. Using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning algorithms, the software enables camera-equipped drones to accurately locate its position by scanning and reading QR codes placed throughout the facility. Each code directs the drone to perform specific tasks, such as reading a gauge and collecting data. The information is fed back to the controller as the drone moves to the next QR code until all assignments are complete and returns to its charging pad.

Since the navigation information is embedded in the code, the user-friendly method allows tasks to be easily modified by printing out new QR codes.

Benefits of ROUNDS

A standard drone typically relies on GPS and can’t maneuver in closed spaces because of its inability to locate its own position. With ROUNDS, inexpensive, off-the-shelf drones with cameras are equipped to navigate indoor spaces without modifications to the hardware or any software configuration. ROUNDS enabled drones can navigate in closed industrial spaces quickly, covering more distance and locations in a shorter period of time. This allows routine manual activities, such as monitoring equipment or gathering instrument data, to be collected at a much higher frequency. ROUNDs could potentially be used to perform security rounds, check warehouse inventory, or perform other tedious tasks within a facility.

The ROUNDS software achieves the speed, precision and accuracy that will further increase nuclear power plant operational efficiency, cut cost, and reduce potential hazards to plant workers. This method also offers an expanded role for self-navigating drones in the industrial setting.

ROUNDS is an R&D 100 Award finalist in 2020 and was developed through the U.S, Department of Energy’s Light Water Reactor Sustainability program to improve operational efficiencies at current nuclear power plants across the country.

Learn more about our nuclear milestones HERE.