Handling heavy radioactive loads, carrying out tricky maintenance and repair operations in contaminated zones... In the nuclear industry, these high-risk activities have always had to be performed by robots immune to radioactivity. Over the years, these technologies have made considerable headway. The present generation of ultra-sophisticated robots in use in European nuclear power stations was developed under the TELEMAN programme.
The European Commission launched the TELEMAN
research programme back in 1989, with the aim of developing a new
generation of robots capable of performing operations in highly
radioactive areas of nuclear power stations. All the major European
research centres involved in nuclear energy signed up - from the
CEA (Commissariat à l'Energie Atomique/France) to the Forschungszentrum
(Karlsruhe/Germany). In all, the programme spawned some 21 development
projects. Some of these are aimed at developing completely new robots,
while others are concerned with the devices which help improve their
Handling robots, walking robots
In the first category, we find TELEMAN 18, a smart integral-gripper-and-arm system for remote handling in hostile environments. The system - developed under a partnership arrangement between Dutch, Belgian, British and Danish participants1 - allows the operator to carry out repairs on nuclear installations by guiding the gripper and arm simultaneously. Christened ROBUG (TELEMAN 44), another robot, equipped with eight "legs" with suckers on the end, can walk through congested areas and even climb walls. This project coordinated by the British SME, Portech Ltd, involved partners from eight separate countries2.
On the components side, several projects have focused on developing "sensory organs" to allow the robots greater freedom of action. One such project (TELEMAN 7), coordinated by the Centre d'études de l'énergie nucléaire de Mol (Belgium), has led to the development of optical systems and sensors which were used on the Ingrid manipulator (TELEMAN 48). Since then, the system has also found various other applications outside the nuclear industry, and has been fitted, for example, on robots used for port handling operations.
These links between the various research projects carried out under the TELEMAN programme have been systematically cultivated. Consider the example of Messina (TELEMAN 50), a robot built under the supervision of the Forschungszentrum in Karlsruhe, in collaboration with the CEA and Fraunhofer-IPA, among others.
"We wanted to develop a robot vehicle, made up of four articulated
modules for carrying very bulky loads and capable of performing
complex movements," explains Doctor Lothar Malcher, of the
Forschungszentrum. "We based ourselves on other projects in
the programme in order to develop a highly sophisticated machine.
For Messina, we adopted solutions developed by Teleman 14 in the
field of new locomotion systems, as well as by Teleman 15 for the
Capabilities of the Messina robot
After three and a half years' work, Messina is operational and meets all of its designers' original requirements. Capable of transporting heavy, bulky loads in hostile environments, this massive robot (1.5m high, 2.5m long, 50cm wide) is composed of four cars. The cars can move vertically, independentally of one another, enabling the convoy to climb over obstacles, which are automatically detected by the optical and control systems, without difficulty. The clover-leaf-shaped wheels are designed to climb up and down steps. The train can change its direction of motion along a platform, follow the path of a corridor, avoid collisions, etc. Finally too, a meticulously designed man-machine interface allows whoever is supervising Messina (via a computer screen) to control all the operations with a high degree of precision.
(1) TU Delft and Vermaat Technics (NL); ULB (B); Newcastle
University (UK); Risø (DK).
(2) Portsmouth Univ. and Nuclear Electric (UK),
Kaiserslautern Univ. (D), ULB (B), EDF (F), CERN (CH), ENEL (I),
Tech. Univ. Lodz (PL), Coimbra Univ. (P).