When humanity perishes in nuclear fire, the University of Essex's radiation-resistant robots will inherit the Earth

Never mind the Clacton-on-Sea pier. They've got £600k to build power plant butlers


The University of Essex has secured £600,000 in funding to develop radiation-resistant robots for use in nuclear facilities.

The cash injection, which will be directed to the British university's School of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, came from the National Centre for Nuclear Robotics (NCNR).

The University of Essex said it intends to use the funding to develop computer vision systems intended for use in nuclear power plants. It also plans to develop methods to increase the longevity of sensors and control systems used in radioactive environments.

"So far, we have experimentally investigated how sensors and associated chips and software deteriorate with radiation exposure, and have developed new ways of modelling this degradation to predict sensor performance at different radiation dose rates, which is extremely important for building future systems," said team lead Professor Klaus McDonald-Maier in a statement.

Computer hardware typically fares poorly in areas flooded with ionising radiation. The effects vary from transient glitches and errors (for example, an ion changing the electrical state on a transistor causing a bit to flip) to long-term cumulative damage that results in physically degraded electrical components.

To lessen this, computer systems that enter radioactive environments are "hardened" to increase their lifespan and mitigate the risk of single-event error (SEE) glitches.

For example, NASA used the BAE RAD 750 processor on the Mars Perseverance rover. This chip, a licensed clone of the IBM PowerPC 750 processor best known for its use on the iMac G3, was designed to withstand up to 100 cumulative kilorads of ionising radiation.

In the documentation, BAE also claimed it can adapt to SEE glitches at a loss of just 1 per cent of the chip's processing power.

"Although our focus has been on the nuclear domain, our research has developed fundamental robotics, embedded systems and AI capabilities that are applicable across other extreme areas such as offshore environments, in space and mining," added Professor McDonald-Maier. "With additional applications possible, such as bomb disposal, firefighting and rescue robotics, this research will remain relevant for decades to come."

Founded in 2017 with an endowment of £42m, the NCNR is led by the University of Birmingham and includes members from academia, industry, and investment capital.

The project aims to fund robotics research in five key areas: decommissioning, UAV-based monitoring, waste handling, characterisation (detecting the levels and types of radiation at a facility), and remotely operated underwater vehicles. ®

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