Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory say they’ve recently demonstrated a remote-operated telerobotics system designed to improve hazardous waste clean-up at nuclear sites.

Argonne said the robots have human-like capabilities and are equipped with dexterous, multi-fingered arms. In a nonradioactive test at DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), the robots successfully opened mock nuclear waste canisters, inspected and sorted their contents and closed the containers.

The technology is still in the prototype stage. Argonne said the long-term goal is to use the robots and emerging digital technologies to help clean up nuclear waste in dormant nuclear facilities overseen by DOE’s Office of Emergency Management. Argonne researchers believe the technology also holds potential for broader applications.

During the weeklong demonstration, Argonne said team members received hands-on training to perform certain tasks, such as manipulating the robot’s arms to open a plastic bottle.

The robotics system was designed as part of a three-year project involving multiple institutions. Along with Argonne and ORNL, collaborators include the Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management (OREM), the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC), Northwestern University and United Cleanup Oak Ridge (UCOR).

Argonne developed the digital twin software, built the dual-arm robot system and successfully tested its teleoperation.

Argonne’s digital twin platform integrates virtual models, sensory display and hardware control technology. Operators equipped with a virtual reality headset and touch-sensitive haptic gloves can control the robots physically and virtually at the same time. When the operator moves its arms, the dual-armed robot mimics the movements.

Argonne said the touch-sensitive gloves allow the operator to effectively touch and feel objects in a natural way. Sensors on the gloves provide operators with direct feedback to improve precision and accuracy.

“Our first aim in telerobotic system design is to facilitate a ​‘telepresence,’ to make the operator feel as though they are present within the hot cell, able to manipulate the objects with both hands, and to experience multimodal sensory feedback in a direct, natural way,” said the system’s designer, Young Soo Park.

The robotic hot cell technology could eventually replace hot cells and glove box systems for a wide variety of hazardous materials handling applications, the laboratory said.

Northwestern University developed the prototype for dexterous multi-fingered manipulation of the robotic arms. UIC developed the integrated automation system. ORNL is developing the mobile hot cell structure for remote handling systems. 

UCOR, the cleanup contractor for DOE’s Oak Ridge Reservation, has been managing environmental safety and health throughout the project. 

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