Belgian aeronautical firm Sabca and Belgian nuclear research centre SCK CEN, have developed a technology that enables drones to carry out radiological measurements. The drones will be used as part of the monitoring programme, or during decommissioning projects or emergency planning, to carry out radiological measurements without any human intervention. “And that will result in a significant step up in terms of radiation protection,” said SCK CEN Director General Eric van Walle.

“This project is the result of a public-private partnership between SCK CEN and Sabca. The drones will be first used as a preventive measure to study areas for potential radioactive contamination,” said Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden. “We are also preparing for possible remediation. Thanks to the detector, measurements can be performed during crises without any human intervention. This maximises the protection of collaborators.”

Sabca provides two types of drone – a fixed-wing drone that can fly autonomously for hours and the multicopter, which can carry heavier detectors without sacrificing flexibility. “Sabca offers solutions that comply with the most stringent standards in the aeronautical industry, where safety is always the primary consideration. We can then make use of that expertise when carrying out complex missions in challenging conditions,” said Sabca CEO Thibauld Jongen. “As far as performing missions in challenging conditions is concerned, Sabca is trialling the transportation of medical samples above cities, the inspection of wind turbines at sea and the integration of drones within commercial airspace. We're extremely pleased that our technology can now be of service to the nuclear sector.”

For such work, a scintillation counter is attached to the drone. “The device measures radioactivity by counting flashes of light caused by the influx of ionising radiation, which in turn indicates the magnitude of the radiation dose. The more light, the more radiation,” explained Johan Camps, head of SCK-CEN's Crisis Management and Decision Support unit. He said the major benefit of drones lies in their flexibility. “Drones allow us to chart every last nook and cranny, which is something we cannot achieve using measurements carried out by hand or from a helicopter. In contrast to traditional measurement techniques, the information is actually already being received while the drone is still in the air. We therefore receive information in real-time from a larger number of specific locations.”

Each of the project partners emphasises the fact that this a demonstration project with which they aim to show how drones can be used and what benefits they offer. The partners believe the use of drones will enable the nuclear sector to perform precise measurements across extensive areas. Those measurements will be indispensable for the purpose of characterising forms of radiation and carrying out the radiological monitoring of nuclear sites and their surroundings.

SCK-CEN and Sabca were awarded €1 million ($1.2 million) in government funding and are also investing additional sums into the project.

The International Atomic Energy Agency reported in February that it had developed a new technology using drones for use by the authorities of Fukushima Prefecture in Japan, making possible radiological measurements in contaminated areas. The IAEA system, equipped with radiation detectors, cameras and GPS devices, has been tested and validated under real conditions in Fukushima and is now available for use in routine or emergency situations. The IAEA said it is ready to assist interested member states to develop and implement the technology.

Image: The Belgian nuclear research centre, SCK CEN, and the Belgian aeronautical specialist, Sabca, have developed an innovative technology that enables drones to be used to carry out radiological measurements (Photo credit: SCK.CEN)