INL News Release
April 14, 2010

Keith Arterburn: 208-351-2999,
Misty Benjamin, 208-351-9900,

INL, local schools celebrate National Robotics Week with open house

IDAHO FALLS – Idaho National Laboratory does world-leading robotics research, and today the public will get a chance to experience some of it first-hand.

As part of the first-ever National Robotics Week, INL’s Robotics and Intelligent Systems group will welcome the media, INL employees and students from area schools. Participants in the open house will learn how INL is advancing technology for unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and remote handling systems. INL scientists will also give demonstrations of their intelligent machines, as will robotics groups from the University of Idaho and local high schools.

"We really like to give folks hands-on experience," says Derek Wadsworth, manager of INL's robotics group. "We'll let people drive some of the robots around."

INL has long been at the forefront of robotics and automated systems research. Lab scientists came up with new software programs, for example, that give robots much greater "intelligence" and autonomy than had been possible before. INL's Robot Intelligence Kernel has revolutionized bot capabilities, allowing the machines to perform complex tasks more or less on their own.

Using such software, INL researchers have developed smarter UGVs that could help police the homeland and protect our troops overseas. INL’s bots have mapped dangerous environments such as tunnels, for instance, and found and marked hidden landmines in recent field tests.

Such technology could help shift the burden — and the danger — of minesweeping from man to machine.

"We're assisting the American warfighter by developing technology that helps get him out of harm's way," Wadsworth says.

INL's UAV research could also help keep American soldiers safe. Roboticists at the lab are developing UAVs that can recognize and pinpoint damage to roads and runways from thousands of feet in the air. This technology could help the Air Force rapidly find and fix runway bomb craters that ground its planes.

Other UAV work at the lab involves integrating "hyperspectral imagers" into small planes. These instruments collect and process a huge range of light wavelengths, far more than the human eye can detect. The potential applications of such enhanced UAVs are many, from gauging the health of croplands and watersheds to determining if carbon dioxide that has been sequestered underground is staying there.

In the field of automation and remote handling, INL roboticists have streamlined the closure of nuclear waste packages for long-term underground storage. They automated the entire process, from the placement of lids atop canisters to leak-detection methods. While Yucca Mountain, the original intended home of the waste, has been shelved, INL's technology could be adapted to seal up a variety of waste packages.

And the group is now developing the hardware and software to automate and integrate INL's ambitious biomass-to-biofuels project. For biomass to be a viable fuel source, each step along the production route — from harvesting plants to grinding them up to packaging them for biorefineries — needs to run as smoothly and efficiently as possible. INL's roboticists are helping make this happen.

"Robotics at INL is not just about engineering," Wadsworth says. "We develop new technology, implement it and help people manage their great ideas. It's really where the rubber meets the road."

The robotics open house will run from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Center for Advanced Energy Studies, 995 University Blvd., Idaho Falls. The public is welcome to attend.

INL is one of the DOE's 10 multiprogram national laboratories. The laboratory performs work in each of DOE's strategic goal areas: energy, national security, science and environment. INL is the nation's leading center for nuclear energy research and development. Day-to-day management and operation of the laboratory is the responsibility of Battelle Energy Alliance.

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