We talk to Rob Skilton, Head of Research Programme – Robotics/Remote Handling at RACE, about an event at Sellafield at the end of 2020.
Why were members of the RACE team at Sellafield?
We were invited to showcase a solution that could standardise Sellafield’s robotics framework for communications and the way that their robots are integrated, all run through the Game Changers programme.
Sellafield has recognised that they have a big challenge in terms of the diversity of systems being supplied for decommissioning and other tasks. The ideal situation for Sellafield is to have equipment they can procure as individual elements, which can be interchangeably recombined to support different types of operations, possibly over several decades.
Who was there from RACE?
There were five of us in the team. Myself, Matt Goodliffe and Craig Whiffin (Control Systems Engineers), Ipek Caliskanelli (Robotics Research Engineer) and Michail Xymitoulias (Control Systems Software Engineer).
How can RACE help to solve Sellafield’s requirements?
CorteX, RACE’s in-house developed platform, fulfils the need to control multiple, remote, robotic devices, operating in unison from the same user interface. When we created CorteX we were looking for solutions to the challenges that had been exhibited in JET and how they could be applied in ITER, DEMO and STEP. CorteX, however, has wider applications than just fusion and it was selected as one of two options that made it through to this Game Changer demonstration round.
How many systems can CorteX control?
As many as needed. Certainly, looking at Sellafield’s requirements this wouldn’t be a limitation. It is likely they will have individual buildings or process cells with independent networks for security and safety reasons, and CorteX works very well with that set-up.
How did you demonstrate the capabilities of CorteX?
Basically, they had a set of four different tasks, designed to be moderately challenging for robots. Selected tasks were chosen at random for us to demonstrate on each day. They were intended to test the ease of reconfiguring the task logic and devices used using the software framework, as these are key requirements for robotic operations including decommissioning at Sellafield.
On the first demonstration day, we brought our own robot with us and used CorteX to demonstrate execution of the chosen task. It related to pushing blocks around a maze on a grid. The purpose was to look at the ability to change the logic of the task, intuitively, at the user end. We had a graphical user interface, which allowed us to quickly program in move sequences and solve different mazes.
The bigger challenge came after that. We were given three robots, two cameras and two days to integrate the devices. CorteX is great and allows fast integration of robotic devices, but having said that, integrating three new robots into any software architecture in two days is a very challenging task. The team did really well. They managed to get all three robots integrated and ready, despite technical difficulties that were outside their control.
On the final demo day we were given a different random task, to be carried out by two of the three robots, which were selected for us. This time, the robot had to draw a sequence of shapes in specific locations. In addition, we had to take photos at key points throughout the execution sequence, then switch to the second robot and camera, without interrupting the logic and the user interface. It took roughly 30 seconds to change between them and, as the logic was essentially identical, the operator was really unaware of any difference.
We completed the challenge, which was to use the two selected robots and then, just as an extra, we quickly switched to the third robot and demonstrated with that as well. The whole event was a big success.
How will it be assessed?
The whole event was live streamed to people at Sellafield, NNL and some external judges, so they were able to watch the tasks, with a commentary on what was happening. This was followed on both days with a Q&A session from lots of different perspectives on how CorteX might integrate into the use cases, what the challenges are, what the security and safety implications could be. I think once again the team did a fantastic job of answering all of the questions.
The judges are putting a technical report together based on the demonstrations. They spent a lot of time with us, understanding the technical implementation details of the system. From what they said it was very much in line with what they were looking for.