Different but similar
This was my first time at the Waste Management Symposia and my first visit to Phoenix. For me, the conference was an opportunity to share the innovative technologies that NDA and Innovate UK have helped to financially support over the last few years and, as the theme of the conference was robotics, find out more about the robotic technologies being developed across the world. This was particularly timely and relevant as I’ve been working on developing our strategy for Robotics and Artificial Intelligence (RAI) R&D.
Bringing innovation to the NDA mission is a key part of NDA’s R&D portfolio and it’s vital if we are to deal with our nuclear legacy safely, securely and cost-effectively. Whilst the UK is working on many ‘never-done-before’ projects, there are also parallels with the challenges facing France, US and Japan, so it was extremely valuable to have technical discussions with the other attendees.
The conference opened on the Sunday afternoon in the Exhibition Hall and Robotics Pavilion, with a range of new technologies being demonstrated. In many ways, the Exhibition Hall is similar to the NDA’s Supply Chain Event but with a greater focus on large corporates rather than Small-and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs).
The interactive exhibits stimulated lively discussions around the stands and constructive exchanges of innovative ideas, particularly from some of the smaller businesses.
Challenges for breakfast
Monday started at 7am with a Presenter’s Breakfast and an opportunity to meet my co-chairs and co-presenters. One co-chair was the impressive Kim Auclair , who has over 40 years’ experience on high-hazard projects including Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl and the Exxon Valdez recovery. Breakfast was therefore spent discussing UK decommissioning challenges and similarities with the US. Introducing insight from other countries and sectors is a key role for NDA’s Technology Team and my breakfast discussions certainly provided lots of ideas to take back to the UK.
Presentations started after breakfast, with as many as 11 concurrent sessions indicating the scale of the conference - more than 2,300 visitors. Fortunately, I’d reviewed the programme beforehand and had already marked out the robotics sessions that interested me most. After hearing about NASA’s robotics programme and the similarities with nuclear, it was time for my presentation.
My theme, Delivering Business Benefit to UK Decommissioning Through Collaborative Innovation – Approach and Technologies, covered our collaborative approach to encouraging innovation and the benefits we have seen from working together with Innovate UK as well, as examples of the innovative technologies funded by NDA and Innovate UK over the last few years. The presentation was well attended and went smoothly and I answered a number of questions about specific technologies we’d supported and their subsequent development and deployment, as well as about how attendees could find out more about the UK companies involved.
Tuesday and Wednesday were spent listening to presentations, discussing research posters with students, touring the stands to see new technologies being showcased or meeting US DOE staff: long days but lots of useful information gained and shared. In particular, we’re keen to collaborate with international partners and the US DOE has funded some very interesting work on the use of robotics to improve worker safety - an opportunity for collaboration that I’m following up now I’m back in the UK.
A number of the technologies were demonstrated in the Robotics Pavilion. It was interesting to follow how robots have developed over the years, and see Savannah River Site’s Robin Robot that was used in the 1980s as well as NASA’s latest Valkyrie robot currently being trialled to operate in gloveboxes. Our latest collaboration with Innovate UK is looking to use robots and so I was able to understand how the US had addressed some of the challenges associated with introducing new technologies.
I managed to catch up with academics from the two UK nuclear robotic academic hubs, Professor Barry Lennox (University of Manchester) & Dr Rob Buckingham (UKAEA) and Professor Tom Scott (University of Bristol). Through our University R&D portfolio, NDA is working closely with both of these new hubs and had supported their exhibition in the Robotics Pavilion so they could share their new technologies and develop collaborations with other international universities. There are lots of opportunities for robotics to improve our mission delivery and it was good to see both groups using the opportunity to the full. It will be really interesting to see how they progress over the next few years.
Introducing industrial robots to our nuclear challenges
Thursday was the last day and I was on a panel discussing Lessons Learned from Industrial Robotics Deployment That Can Be Applied to The Nuclear Field. The session went very well with lots of discussion about the technical, commercial and cultural barriers to introducing robots and how they can be overcome. The importance of demonstrating technologies was highlighted which was great as that is the aim for most of our projects co-funded with Innovate UK.
Overall, a really useful, timely and friendly conference. Phoenix isn’t as high rise as other US cities I’ve visited before but it's certainly hotter! I gained lots of new contacts and information to share with colleagues back in the UK. Robotics research is a key area for NDA at the moment and the information and contacts gained from the conference will really help drive forward both our strategy and research programme.
Interested in technology?
Find out about some of the recent technologies funded jointly by the NDA and Innovate UK:
Selllafield Ltd and Innovate UK have just announced a joint initiative to find innovative protective equipment for nuclear workers:
Learn about the hubs supported by the NDA:
More reading about WM Symposia:
- Nucleargraduate Arun Khuttan was inspired by the 2018 event
- The NDA’s Adrian Simper reflects on WMS 2017