Southwest Research Institute-led team developing UAS to use in Japan's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant



Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) is leading a team that is developing UAS technology to fly into the containment vessels of the damaged units at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station and assess conditions.

SwRI was contracted by Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Incorporated (TEPCO Holdings) to explore the use of UAS within the containment.

SwRI engineers are working with the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Lab at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) School of Engineering and Applied Science, to help “adapt small drones to autonomously operate within the containment.”

“This is a formidable challenge,” says 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.”

Back in 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and a tsunami with estimated wave heights of 13 meters struck the power station. This one-two punch set off a series of events that ultimately caused three reactors to fail.

Since then, several ground-and underwater-based robotic systems have been sent inside the containment, but damage and high radiation levels have limited access to information that is important to decontamination and decommissioning efforts.

“The team is adapting high-speed, advanced mobility drones to collect key information about the current status,” explains 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.”

The core feasibility of the team’s approach was successfully demonstrated in a test fixture at SwRI’s San Antonio campus in late 2017. During Phase 1 of the project, the team also confirmed that the UAS components could survive the containment's harsh radiation conditions. 

“As robots get smaller, faster, and smarter, this is exactly the kind of problem we want them to address,” says 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.”