Robots for Robbie as Dounreay makes young boy's day
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A 12-year-old boy was given a special treat by Dounreay's operators with a visit to see the nuclear site's robots in action at an Innovation Day event.
Robbie Maclean, who attends Carrbridge Primary School, had written to Dounreay Site Restoration Ltd (DSRL) back in 2020 after seeing an online story about robot trials being conducted there.
His dream came true when he was recently invited to Dounreay to view some of the site's remotely operated vehicles utilised for the removal of radioactive material where workers cannot go.
"I wrote asking them questions about robots that tunnel underground. Then, a few weeks ago I got a letter saying I was invited, so here we are now," said a delighted Robbie during his visit.
Robbie said he is a fan of the popular TV show Robot Wars with Dead Metal being his favourite among the house robots. His passion for such vehicles led Robbie and his dad Rory to drive up to Caithness and have some hands-on experience with a few of the nuclear industry's most hi-tech devices currently in use.
A spokesperson for the site said: "Dounreay is using remotely operated vehicles (robots) to do jobs in areas where operators either cannot go – such as small spaces – or where radioactivity is high, and to protect our operators we use a robot.
"We mostly use [them] to survey areas such as service ducts or pipework, which gives us useful information."
After seeing a video of the robots in action at Dounreay, Robbie wrote to site project manager Jason Simpson, who works with the Robots and Artificial Intelligence in Nuclear (RAIN) Hub on field trials for the Vega/Lyra robot used to access inaccessible ducts within redundant laboratories.
Jason said: “Now the characterisation survey is complete we have built up a very comprehensive picture of the duct, which will help us make informed decisions on how [it] should be decommissioned."
When Robbie and his dad visited there were a number of different robots "from either end of the financial scale" that they were invited to see in action. Lyra has already carried out surveying work within an underground duct at the Fuel Cycle Area and DSRL is collaborating with a number of academic organisations as well as commercial companies in this area.
One of the most bizarre devices on show was Boston Dynamics's dog-like robot called Spot, which Robbie had a chance to remotely control. The pumped up yellow pup walked and ran around a warehouse and Robbie took the controls to try getting Spot up and down some stairs. The mechanical quadruped walked over a variety of obstacles on the day that simulated the challenging environments it was designed for.
"I think it's amazing," said Robbie. "It can go up stairs and it has sensors built in so it can stop. It's almost like a natural dog. It can crouch, which is button B, and it can uncrouch which is button A. There are joysticks which you can move it around on. There's also an arrow that controls the camera." Being an avid gamer, Robbie said he didn't find it too difficult to operate Spot's controls.
Dounreay innovation manager Gordon Tait talked about how some of the robotic devices could be deployed at the site in the future. "I'm looking into any technologies that we can use to improve decommissioning. If we ever had any emergency situation we can now send the robot in with visual and radiological survey data so we can find out in real time what's actually happening rather than guessing."
Robbie was delighted with his visit and said he would love to develop a Robot Wars style vehicle and possibly work in mechanical engineering in the future. Perhaps robot mad Robbie might even return to Dounreay one day as a fully fledged robotic specialist? "I think using the Xbox really helps you understand things like this," he added.