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 15 square kilometre 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 2600 square kilometre 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/h. 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.
These 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. Several further missions are planned over the next 12 months.
“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”.
There are also applications in the mining sector, for example, drones could be used to identify rare earths, gold or copper mineral deposits, quickly and non-invasively.
Photo: Radiation mapping carried out in April 2019 shows a hotspot at the Kopachi site (Credit: NCNR)