Mapping the Red Forest

25 July 2019

A team of UK scientists has completed a 3D radiation survey of Chernobyl’s Red Forest using both fixed-wing and multi-rotor drones.

A TEAM OF BRITISH SCIENTISTS has completed the most comprehensive survey yet of Chernobyl’s Red Forest, identifying previously undetected radiation hot-spots.

The team, led by Professor Tom Scott of the UK’s National Centre for Nuclear Robotics (NCNR) and University of Bristol, used fixed-wing and multi-rotor drones fitted with custom-built radiation detectors to create detailed 3D radiation maps of a 15km2 area within the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

The April mission was carried out in collaboration with Ukraine’s SSE “Eco Centre”, the body responsible for gathering data within the 2600km2 zone.

Starting at the lowest risk site, the village of Buriakivka, located 13km from the Chernobyl nuclear plant, researchers then moved on to the partially-demolished settlement of Kopachi before tackling the Red Forest.

Fixed-wing drones were used to quickly map radiation over larger areas flying at a height of 45m-60m and a speed of around 65 km/hr. Rotary drones were then used for detailed investigation of key areas. The area was mapped during 50 sorties, over ten days, with drones spending some 24 hours in the air.

“The survey not only reaffirmed current understanding of the radiation distribution at an unprecedented spatial resolution, it revealed unexpected areas of major contamination in Kopachi,” NCNR said.

Registering a dose-rate of greater than 1mSv/hr, the area is believed to contain material from the original emergency cleanup activities performed in the aftermath of the 1986 accident, according to the team.

The findings can be used to update safety protocols that will inform future tourism activity and plans for the construction of huge solar farms in the region.

Some 70,000 tourists visted the Chernobyl exclusion zone in 2018, and the number is likely to rise following the popularity of HBO’s recent Chernobyl mini-series.

Several further missions are planned over the next 12 months, according to NCNR.

“We have successfully demonstrated that the UK now has the capability to monitor radioactive sites and respond to nuclear incidents without exposing humans to risk,” said Professor Scott.

“We can fly into a contaminated area from a safe zone, perhaps 10km away from the incident site, and gather detailed information — streaming it live during the flight before returning safely to base”.

Looking beyond radiation mapping, there are also applications for the technology in the mining sector. Drones could be used to identify rare earths, gold or copper mineral deposits, quickly and non-invasively.  

Radiation sign outside the Red Forest
A hotspot identified at Kopachi was found to me a mechanical waste separation plant used as part of the cleanup activity in the 1980s and 90s. It was not possible to easily spot the facility from satellite images
Radiation mapping was carried out across a 15km2 area with the Chernobyl exclusion zone

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