With giant pinchers and six legs, the cleanup crew scuttles along the walls and around the radioactive ponds of an old nuclear plant on the coast of the Irish sea. The colony of insect-like robots has a single purpose — to clean the nuclear waste that’s still too dangerous for people to approach. When the robots are done, they will die there, and their metallic bodies becoming part of the dangerous landscape.
Although this sounds like a bit out of a dystopian YA novel, Rebecca Weston, the director at the Sellafield nuclear plant in the UK, is actively working to realize this future. The autonomous insectoid cleaners are being developed to clean the most dangerous areas at Sellafield. The robots join a team of human-guided robots already working there, but the colony-like artificial intelligence of the insect-like robots sets them apart from other generations of radioactivity cleaners.
The Sellafield plant has hundreds of tons of radioactive waste left over from the cold war that doesn’t meet current safety standards and is too dangerous for people to clean up. Without robot helpers, the plant runs the risk of a major spill into the ground or water: Enter the new insectoid, autonomous robot colony that is being built to clean the plant.
The six-legged robots are being developed by Forth Engineering for around $625,000 a machine. Each robot has a giant pincher that can be used to lift and crush the waste and then safely store it. Magnets in each of its six feet will let the cleaners be highly mobile and even clamber up walls. In order to go into the highly contaminated areas, the insect robots have artificial intelligence software that allows them to work by talking with each other.
Mark Telford, the managing director for Forth Engineering told Bloomberg, “the robot will make its own decisions on how it walks, what it sees, and its interpretation of its environment.”
Although there is a working prototype for the insect robots now, it will take until late 2018 for the robots to start working at Sellafield. At that time the robots will join the other mechanical cleaners that call Sellafield home – nuclear sludge slurping mini-submarines, giant robot arms, and intelligent flying drones.
Forth Engineering told Bloomberg that even though the insect robots are sturdier than people, once a plucky machine heads into the highly radioactive areas, it will likely never leave. The little bug robots are still vulnerable to radioactivity after all. So this vision of a graveyard of robot cleaners in a nuclear site is our future, but it is maybe not a dystopian future — it’s one where valiant insect cleaners save us from our radioactive mistakes.