Southwest Research Institute Develops Unmanned Aerial System Technology to Enter Fukushima Daiichi

Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Incorporated (TEPCO Holdings) has contracted the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) to develop unmanned aerial system (UAS) technology to fly into the containment vessels of the damaged units at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station and assess conditions. SwRI has partnered with the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Lab at the University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering and Applied Science to adapt small drones to autonomously operate within the containment.

“This is a formidable challenge,” said project manager Dr. Monica Garcia, a senior research engineer in SwRI’s Intelligent Systems Division. “The conditions inside the containment at Fukushima Daiichi are quite possibly the most challenging environment that the SwRI-Penn team has had to address. We will be pushing the envelope in terms of the technology.”

The 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami in 2011 caused three reactors to fail, and the resulting physical damage and high radiation levels have limited access to information vital to decontamination and decommissioning efforts. The team has demonstrated the feasibility of their approach in a test fixture at SwRI’s San Antonio campus late last year, demonstrating that the drone was capable of autonomously navigating in a confined, GPS-denied environment, avoiding obstacles along the flight path, and surviving the radiation levels expected during a mission inside of the units at Fukushima Daiichi.

“The team is adapting high-speed, advanced mobility drones to collect key information about the current status,” said technical lead Dr. Richard Garcia, also a senior research engineer at SwRI. “This information will play an important role in future decontamination and decommission efforts at Fukushima Daiichi.”

“As robots get smaller, faster, and smarter, this is exactly the kind of problem we want them to address,” said Dr. Vijay Kumar, the Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. “Challenges like this are what push research in our field forward.”