The INL is working to develop a new class of robotic systems that can adjust their level of autonomy on the fly, leveraging their own intrinsic intelligence to meet whatever level of control is handed down from the user. These robots operate from a wide variety of platforms — from all-terrain vehicles to submersible robots or even whole colonies or "swarms" of interactive robots, each smaller than a human hand. The trait common to all these systems is the ability to share initiatively between human and machine, permitting the system to cope with interruptions in communication links, component failures, and changes in operator workload, resources, and mission requirements.
This robot detects and measures gamma radiation, preventing human exposure.
Because machine intelligence and adaptation begin with robust real-world sensing, the INL focus is on developing sensor–rich robots and fusion algorithms that enable the robots to fully “experience” and “understand” the environment. Toward that end, a team of INL scientists, engineers and support workers strive to improve the sensing and processing systems that robots use. The team aims to broaden robotic capabilities. INL –engineered robotic systems combine refined sensing capabilities with one or more mechanical means to respond. Examples are the robots’ ability to maneuver in difficult environments or to selectively relay critical information to other robots or human controllers.
A HEPA filtered vacuum cleaner robot can clean up dangerous wastes remotely, without the need for human exposure.
At the INL and other DOE sites, remote characterization of hazardous environments (e.g., high radiation areas, chemically contaminated areas, and unknown environments) is a pressing application area where the need for this research is acute. Manual work within hazardous environments is slow and expensive. Worker efficiency is low because of requirements for wearing protective clothing and, in some cases, exposure limits that require work to be accomplished in several–minute intervals. Even when exposure limits are not an issue, confined spaces, the encumbrances of protective clothing, and the highly repetitive nature of certain tasks induce fatigue.
The INL is taking steps toward functional objectives set down in the Department of Energy Critical Technology Roadmap including a personnel radiation exposure reduction of 90 percent, a secondary waste reduction of 75 percent and a productivity increase of 200 percent for the DOE’s Office of Environmental Management (EM). 1 This INL research will produce a wide spectrum of benefits, including robots for decontamination and decommissioning, environmental monitoring, long–term stewardship, military applications, manufacturing and commercial applications, homeland defense and critical infrastructure protection, and urban search–and–rescue uses.
Air and ground vehicles cooperate to accomplish environmental monitoring tasks.
1 A Critical Technology Roadmap, p. 4, October 1998