Thursday, November 24, 2011

Army of Tiny Robots to Monitor Underground Pipes for Radioactive Leaks

A spherical robot equipped with a camera may navigate underground pipes of a nuclear reactor by propelling itself with an internal network of valves and pumps. Image:Harry Asada/d'Arbeloff Laboratory
According to a recent study released in June, about 75% of the US's nuclear reactors have sprung a leak in the past, often with a result of contaminating groundwater. The little ball pictured above could be one of many let loose in underground pipes at nuclear reactor facilities to ensure no leaks radioactive leaks go unnoticed. MIT reports that Harry Asada, the Ford Professor of Engineering in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and director of MIT's d'Arbeloff Laboratory for Information Systems and Technology and his colleges are working on perfecting this little ball-shaped robot to help monitor and detect leaks in aging nuclear reactor pipelines.
"We have 104 reactors in this country," says Asada. "Fifty-two of them are 30 years or older, and we need immediate solutions to assure the safe operations of these reactors."
The ball could cut down on costs of direct monitoring, since right now the only way to really get in and look at the pipes is with humans, and that's expensive and time consuming. Instead, these "small, egg-sized robots [are] designed to dive into nuclear reactors and swim through underground pipes, checking for signs of corrosion. The underwater patrollers, equipped with cameras, are able to withstand a reactor's extreme, radioactive environment, transmitting images in real-time from within."
The robot will be able to move itself forward by using the force of water moving through the reactor pipes. This way, there's nothing (like fins or propellers) to get caught in pipes. The robot is equipped with a series of tiny Y-shaped valves that can change the flow of water going through it -- operators can switch up which pipes water is flowing through and navigate the robot that way.
The robot will also be able to transmit data wirelessly, and will have a camera to allow operators to "see" in the pipes. However, they aren't going to be built to last. The robots will be able to go on a handful of missions, but will be treated as disposable since they'll break down from radiation exposure.
Robots have already proven useful at nuclear reactors. At Fukushima, they were used to explore the facility while humans could stay a safe(er) distance away. These new robots will help more with preventative maintenance, though how much they will help to make nuclear power facilities safer is an item for debate.
Meanwhile, our water utilities could take a page from this robot experiment as well, since robots are being explored for spotting and fixing old and broken water lines.


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