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Successful demonstration of Argonne’s new two-arm telerobotic system for hazardous waste cleanup; has potential for other applications


Because they can go where humans can’t, robots are particularly suited to working safely with hazardous nuclear waste. But first, these robots must become like the humans they replace, with arms and fingers capable of faithfully imitating a person’s movements.

Now, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory have designed and tested a remote-controlled dual-arm telerobotic system with human-like capabilities that has the potential to revolutionize cleaning up hazardous waste and offers wider development potential. applications.

Designed as a multi-laboratory, multi-institution project, the telerobotics system was recently successfully tested in a simulated, non-radioactive environment at DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Along with Argonne and ORNL, the Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management (OREM), University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), Northwestern University and United Cleanup Oak Ridge, LLC (UCOR) are collaborating to the three-year project launching in 2023. The project was funded by the DOE Office of Environmental Management (DOE EM).

“Our first goal in designing telerobotic systems is to facilitate “telepresence”, to give the operator the feeling of being present in the hot cell, able to manipulate objects with both hands and experience of multimodal sensory feedback in a direct, natural way.” —Young Soo Park, Argonne Robotics and Remote Systems Program Manager in the Applied Materials Division

The technology is still at the prototype stage. The long-term goal is to use collaborative robots, or “cobots,” and emerging digital technologies to help clean up nuclear waste at inactive nuclear facilities overseen by the DOE Office of Emergency Management. The technology also has potential for uses beyond DOE nuclear waste sites.

Demonstration of robot capabilities, training offered

In the nuclear In industry, hot cells and glove box systems have been the traditional method of handling radioactive materials for decades. Hot cells are heavily shielded concrete cells with mechanical manipulators to handle highly radioactive materials. Likewise, remote operators can also use gripper-like manipulators to move materials within the hot cell. A glove box is a securely sealed container located inside the hot cell, with openings that allow laboratory operators to access attached gloves to maneuver and study hazardous materials.

However, these systems are no longer useful because they rely on outdated technology, manually operated and cannot be moved to job sites. Argonne’s mobile robotic hot cell system, which can easily be deployed on-site, would essentially robotize the current method.

The recent demonstration of the Argonne-designed robot took place at a long-closed ORNL radiochemical processing facility, which houses various radiochemical wastes.

In the demonstration, the goal was to use the telerobotic technology to handle the fake cans of nuclear waste contained in a hot cell within the ORNL facility. The material in the cartridges is listed by the DOE as containing radioactive material. Equipped with remarkably dexterous, multi-fingered arms, the robots successfully opened the fake boxes of nuclear waste, inspected and sorted their contents, and closed the containers.

During the week-long demonstration, team members received hands-on training to perform specific tasks, such as manipulate the robot arms to open a plastic bottle.

Telerobotic technology marks an important step in improving the safe and effective cleanup of hazardous materials at nuclear sites, said system designer Young Soo Park, who leads Argonne’s robotics and remote systems program in the Applied Materials division.

“Alongside Argonne, the entire robotics community has developed innovative new robotics technologies. But there have been very few actual demonstrations of the capabilities of the telerobotic system,” Park said. “The highly successful demonstration (at ORNL) proved the technical feasibility of this first-of-its-kind concept implementing a complex and dexterous telerobotic system for practical applications.”

Drawing on decades of robotics expertise, Argonne scientists developed the telerobotic system in just six months at the Argonne Robotics and Augmented Reality Laboratory. In late 2023, the technology was transported to ORNL for integration with the laboratory’s mobile work cell systems.

The new robotic system runs on Argonne’s mixed reality digital twin software platform. The system integrates virtual models, sensory display and hardware control technology. Digital twin technology acts as a bridge between the real and virtual worlds, creating a digital replica, or twin, of a physical object. The digital twin supports optimization in all phases of the remote operating system, including design, training operation and analysis.

Sitting at a digital workstation, operators equipped with a virtual reality headset and touch-sensitive haptic gloves can control the robots both physically and virtually. When the operator moves his arms, the two-armed robot imitates the movements. Tactile gloves allow the operator to effectively touch and feel objects in a natural way. Sensors on the gloves provide operators with direct feedback that helps improve task precision and accuracy.

“Our first goal in designing telerobotic systems is to facilitate “telepresence”, to give the operator the feeling of being present in the hot cell, able to manipulate objects with both hands and experience of multimodal sensory feedback in a direct way, in a natural way,” Park said.

Robotic hot cell technology could eventually replace hot cell and glove box systems for a wide variety of hazardous materials handling applications. The mobile telerobotic system can move from one hot cell to another. Operators can automatically handle, sort and inspect hazardous waste remotely without removing materials from the cell. “Our mobile robotic system significantly improves worker safety and efficiency and reduces costs,” Park said.

As one of the most advanced avatar systems, the two-arm telerobotic system has potential for application outside the nuclear industry.

“The telerobotic system can be used in applications where physical telepresence is required,” Park said. “Examples include industrial applications such as facility construction and maintenance and social service applications such as medical and healthcare systems. Additionally, the robotic hot cell can be used to replace hot cells and glove boxes in scientific and industrial applications such as laboratory experiments and materials processing.

Real-world testing of telerobotics system planned for this year

The team’s diverse expertise and close collaboration are essential to the success of the project. Each partner manages part of the project, which is scheduled for completion in 2024.

Argonne developed the digital twin software, built the dual-arm robot system, and successfully tested its teleoperation. Northwestern University developed the prototype for dexterous multi-finger manipulation of robotic arms. UIC developed the integrated automation system. ORNL develops the mobile hot cell structure for remote manipulation systems. UCOR, the DOE Oak Ridge Reservation cleanup contractor, manages environmental safety and health throughout the project. The DOE Office of Emergency Management will oversee progress until completion.

The team is advancing mobile robotics hot cell technology in preparation for a real-world demonstration later this year. Successful demonstration will pave the way for using the mobile telerobotics system to help DOE’s Office of Environmental Management clean up 107 nuclear sites. The ORNL complex is one of 15 remaining nuclear sites still being cleaned up.

The UIC research was funded by DOE EM’s Minority Serving Institutions Partnership Program.


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