Meet the RadPiper

24 May 2018

Pipe-crawling robots could massively cut costs by helping to identify uranium deposits inside pipes at redundant fuel cycle facilities.

A pair of autonomous robots, developed by Carnegie Mellon University’s (CMU’s) Robotics Institute in the US, will be used to investigate pipes at the US Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, Ohio. It is intended to identify uranium deposits on pipe walls.

The robot, dubbed RadPiper, has proved it can measure radiation levels more accurately from inside the pipe than is possible with external techniques. This approach saves on labour costs and significantly reduces hazards to workers who otherwise would have to perform external measurements by hand, garbed in protective gear and using lifts or scaffolding to reach elevated pipes.

The DOE estimates that the robots could save tens of millions of dollars in completing the characterisation of uranium deposits at the Piketon enrichment plant and could save $50 million at a similar uranium enrichment plant in Paducah, Kentucky.

CMU is building two of the robots and will deliver the production prototype units to the Portsmouth site this month (May).

RadPiper employs a new disc-collimated radiation sensor invented at CMU.

The team, led by William ‘Red’ Whittaker, robotics professor and director of the Field Robotics Centre, began the project in 2017, working closely with DOE and decommissioning contractor Fluor-BWXT Portsmouth, to build a prototype on a tight schedule. It was tested at the Portsmouth site last autumn.

The Portsmouth plant began operating in 1954, producing enriched uranium including weapons-grade uranium, and was closed in 2000. It is DOE’s largest roofed facility, with three large buildings containing enrichment process equipment including more than 75 miles of process pipe that contain uranium traces. The uranium deposits must be found and characterised before the DOE decontaminates, decommissions and demolishes the facility.

In the first process building human crews, over the past three years, have performed more than 1.4 million measurements of the process piping and components manually. “With more than 15 miles of piping to be characterised in the next process building, there is a need to seek a smarter method,” says Rodrigo V Rimando, Jr, director of technology development for the DOE’s Office of Environmental Management. “We anticipate labour savings in the order of an eight-to-one ratio for the piping accomplished by RadPiper.” However, nuclear deposits must still be identified manually in some components.

RadPiper will operate initially in pipes measuring 30-42 inches in diameter and will characterise radiation levels in each footlong segment of pipe. Segments with potentially hazardous amounts of uranium-235 will be removed and decontaminated. The majority of the plant’s piping will remain in place to be demolished safely along with the rest of the facility.

The tetherless robot moves through the pipe at a steady pace on a pair of flexible tracks. It is equipped with light detection and ranging (Lidar) and a fisheye camera to detect obstructions ahead, such as closed valves. After completing a run of pipe, the robot automatically returns to its launch point.

Integrated data analysis and report generation free nuclear analysts from time consuming calculations. The robot’s disc-collimated sensing instrument uses a standard sodium iodide sensor to count gamma rays. The sensor is positioned between two lead discs, which block gamma rays from uranium deposits that lie beyond the one foot section of pipe that is being characterised at any given time. Whittaker said CMU is seeking a patent on the instrument. The DOE has paid CMU $1.4 million to develop the robot as part of the Pipe Crawling Activity Measurement System.

In addition to the Portsmouth and Paducah plants, the robots could be useful at other DOE sites undergoing cleanups, such as Savannah River in Aiken, South Carolina, and Hanford in Washington. “With at least 50 more years of nuclear cleanup to be performed, the Robotics Institute could serve as a major pipeline of roboticists for the DOE’s next several workforce generations,” said Whittaker.  

Robotics Siri Maley, Mohammad Mousaei and Lawrence Papincak prepare to test RadPiper in a pipe mockup
Robotics David Kohanbash, senior research programmer, launches RadPiper into a processing pipe mockup during a test at the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute

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