Rising To Meet The Radioactive Challenge: UAS's In Radiological Monitoring

The Chernobyl disaster of 1986 and the more recent Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011 have demonstrated that even the most sophisticated safety and kill switch systems are sometimes insufficient. The resulting radioactive fallout is a serious threat to human activities in these areas, warranting a constant monitoring of real-time situations by officials. However, due to the inherent risk associated with the task, utilizing human resources is a debatable issue.

In the aftermath of the Fukushima incident, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has developed an innovative method to perform radiological monitoring. Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS's) fitted with radiation detectors, cameras and GPS devices have been put through their paces around Fukushima. The tests were conducted without any major glitches and confirmed the feasibility of employing autonomous vehicles for radiological monitoring purposes.

The availability of advanced technology and state-of-the-art manufacturing processes has allowed for the development of highly modular autonomous vehicles. Companies like the Wynyard Group, Kromek and Qualcomm who provide autonomous solutions globally are at the epicenter of this revolutionary idea. For instance, the autonomous vehicles of the Wynyard Group are some of the most sophisticated pieces of machinery available. These UAS's are fuel-based and capable of undertaking multiple missions based on specific requirements.

Equipped with the necessary monitoring devices, UAS's can perform wide ranging searches in a matter of minutes. They can easily demarcate radioactive areas using GPS trackers, allowing the authorities to cordon off high risk zones and receive real-time telemetry data. Thanks to the significant advances made in autonomous vehicles, newer models are being rolled out, which are more modular and compatible with modern technology. Other upgrades include larger payloads, integrated detection sensors, improved self-navigation systems and the ability to connect and cooperate through a datalink with other similar systems on the ground.

Wynyard Group’s UAS's are fuel-based and this gives them the added advantage of range and an increased flight time. Additionally, it also means an increased payload which allows for more systems to be carried on-board, making them effective jack-of-all-trades. The IAEA is also contemplating new additions and changes to existing UAS's, with regard to the integration of new instrumentations to later models.

Much of the proposed instrumentation upgrades have to do with better camera capabilities for monitoring purposes. Once up and running, the new systems are expected to allow for a 3D aerial photogrammetry model, superimposed with radiological maps and radionuclide identification, according to an IAEA official.

What this means is that UAS's will have the capability to monitor and detect radioactivity in the vicinity, which will be synchronized with the on-board GPS tracker. This data is transmitted to the operator on the ground in real-time and also stored in the vehicles’ databases. Upon landing, the recovered data can then be reconstructed along with radiation measurements for the benefit of the concerned authorities. The application of such a technology is endless. Asia and Southeast Asia (SEA), in particular, is one such area where this technology can prosper. Atomic power is being given a serious consideration by these countries as an alternative to conventional power plants. Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines are the forerunners when it comes to nuclear power in SEA.

A study conducted by the ASEAN Center for Energy showed that a functioning nuclear power plant in SEA was a possibility by 2030. The widespread availability of UAS's for monitoring purposes will not only help thwart any potential mishaps but also reduce exposure to unwanted risks and provide a long-term monitoring platform for contaminated areas.

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