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Rising Stars of Robotics

PNNL to help mentor the next generation of robotics experts in environmental cleanup

June 2016
Rising Stars of Robotics
This remotely operated vehicle used to characterize radiological conditions beneath Hanford’s Radiochemical Processing Laboratory is just one of many systems deployed by PNNL over the years. PNNL is partnering with Carnegie Mellon University to mentor a new generation of robotics experts in environmental cleanup.

Some of the brightest young minds in robotics are coming to PNNL—and they’re going to build robots. Cleanup robots, that is. No, not like that little vacuum that scoots itself around the house sucking up bread crumbs and dust bunnies. These will be highly advanced robotics systems designed for extremely contaminated areas that pose a high risk of exposure to human workers.

It’s all part of a traineeship program that begins this summer. Graduate students from the highly regarded Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) will team up with Department of Energy (DOE) national lab experts for the chance to apply their learning to real-world cleanup challenges at the DOE Hanford and Savannah River sites.

Sharon Bailey, PNNL lead for the program, is excited to work with some of the nation’s leading robotics students. “These kids are the brightest in the country,” she said. “They’re sharp and they’re fascinated with the technology.”

Under the program, CMU will send four graduate students—two to PNNL and two to Savannah River National Laboratory—for a two-year internship to design and build robotics systems for environmental cleanup under guidance of national lab staff. After two years, a second set of four interns will go through the same program.

Partnering for the Future of Cleanup

CMU became interested in partnering with PNNL after a representative from the Robotics Institute saw a presentation by Bailey on the Lab’s capabilities. PNNL has used robotics systems to clean and characterize contaminated environments at Hanford for decades. Bailey has around 20 years of experience in areas across the site—including the tank farms, the U-Plant, the 324 Building, and the 325 Building (aka the Radiochemical Processing Laboratory), where PNNL used a remotely operated vehicle to characterize radiological conditions in underground vaults that date back to the 1950s and had been sealed for 20 years.

So what kinds of cleanup challenges will these rising rock stars of robotics take on? That’s still being worked out, according to Bailey. One possibility would be to characterize the radiological conditions in Hanford’s PUREX facility canyons, where large pieces of extremely contaminated equipment from legacy nuclear weapons production have remained sealed and untouched in underground tunnels for decades.

“PUREX is an obvious environment for applying robotics because you know it’s hazardous, but you don’t know what’s really there,” Bailey said.

Whatever systems the interns devise, and wherever they apply them, Bailey expects impressive results. “These are going to be highly advanced systems,” she predicts.

The program is funded by the DOE Office of Environmental Management as part of DOE efforts to reinvigorate its robotics program at cleanup sites and to foster the next generation of robotics experts.

PNNL Research Team: Sharon Bailey, Patrick Valdez, Carl Picker, and Stan Owsley.


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