shadow robot hand

Robot hands could take the human out of nuclear decommissioning

Image credit: jack loughran

The rapid improvement seen in robotics in recent years is opening a door to new applications that couple the dexterity of the human body with the resilience of machinery.

The London-based Shadow Robot Company has developed a robot appendage designed to be operated remotely by a human. It comes with a manoeuvrable arm and an intricate hand that will exactly replicate the movements made by the operator’s own fingers and thumb.

Such technology may be in its infancy, but Shadow Robot’s managing director Rich Walker envisages a future where it could be put to use in applications such as remote surgery or even allowing people to plug into a remote humanoid in another location.

For now the firm is targeting nuclear decommissioning as a process that is inherently dangerous to humans but needs to be completed quickly as ageing nuclear plants are taken off the grid.

Typically workers on such projects need to interact with contaminated materials through gloveboxes, the likes of which Homer Simpson can be seen using when handling glowing green rods at his day job (I have been told this isn’t that true to life).

While the radiation in these rooms is within the limits that the human body can withstand, they are still required to slip into cumbersome hazmat suits that take time to take on and off and get very sweaty and uncomfortable after a few hours

“You're in an airtight container, your air may be being fed in outside, you sweat really fast and get massive fluid depletion, and you've got to come out of it to go to the toilet,” Walker said.

The ergonomics are “so bad” he added, that most workers are only expected to be in them for two to three hours at most before they must come out. While they are relatively protected from the harsh environment in which they work, accidents happen, the suits can get ripped, potentially exposing the worker to dangerously unsafe levels of radiation.

This is where Shadow Robot’s hand comes in, in theory providing the same level of dexterity to users when handling nuclear materials without any of the risk factors association with radiation exposure.

“On the one hand it reduces the safety risks by moving humans one step further back,” Walker said, “on the other hand increasing the productivity and effectiveness by saying you can actually use this thing for much longer because you're not in these difficult working conditions.”

The hand can carry up to 5kg and the remote user can 'feel' what it feels through a series of inflating pads on their end which respond to sensors on the hand itself. It can also be put to work straight away on existing glove boxes or could directly handle radioactive material, unlike humans.

The cost to the nation of nuclear decommissioning in the UK is huge. Expenditure for the 2016-17 financial year was around £3.2bn with around 17 sites currently in various stages of the process. This is effectively a committed cost: “you will have to spend that money; there's no ‘don't spend the money’ option,” Walker says.

He hopes his robot arms can be used at these sites to speed up the process, potentially saving a bit of money, while also reducing the risk to the human operators involved. Although he’s careful to point out that the technology is less useful for areas blighted by nuclear disaster, the most recent example being the Fukushima power plant in Japan.

Efforts to clean up the site with specialised robots are under way, but they do not have a good shelf life as the intense radiation eventually causes irreparable damage to their circuits after a short period of time, leading to “robot graveyards” filled with irretrievable machinery.

The much-reduced levels of radiation in nuclear decommissioning mean that even relatively delicate robotics, like the robot hand, have a much better chance of lasting a useful amount of time.

“It will break eventually, because everything breaks eventually, but we'll get a sensible amount of time before it breaks,” Walker said.

The firm is already in discussions with Sellafield, which is currently undergoing a lengthy decommissioning process.

But just like human hands, the device is adaptable, and Walker envisages it being used in other areas such as semiconductor manufacturing. Unlike the nuclear problem, where it would mainly be used to protect humans from radiation, here it would be used to protect the product from human contamination.

Telerobotic systems are also being considered which could see the hand being coupled with robotic legs and a vision system to create some kind of physical presence for people in distant locales. Bringing all these technologies together however, would be “awesome but probably quite expensive” Walker admitted.

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