March 3, 2021

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UK, Japan ink robotics deal on fusion energy, nuclear decommissioning research

The UK and Japan have inked a £12 million (US$ 16.39 million) robotics deal, a research and technology collaboration anticipated to improve and automate existing decommissioning and fusion energy production processes applied to nuclear facilities. 

Under the project, called LongOps, research will be undertaken about large-scale decommissioning processes in nuclear and fusion facilities. These protocols will be undertaken in a time-intensive manner in order to be accomplished safely. This will be done by leveraging robotics and digital twin technologies to ensure that the project will not pose any risk to human health. 

Once implemented, the project will focus on studying long-reach robotic arms that can provide faster delivery and safer decommissioning of nuclear facilities at Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors in Japan. It will likewise support decommissioning at Sellafield in the UK.  

The 4-year research collaboration will be funded equally by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) and the TEPCO in Japan. The project will be led by UKAEA’s Remote Applications in Challenging Environments (RACE). It will also spearhead design strategies and deliver new robotic capabilities with global potential. 

Amanda Solloway, UK Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, emphasised the importance of the UK-Japan alliance. She mentioned that: “to unlock the amazing potential of nuclear power, it’s critical that the UK works hand in hand with international partners to safely decommission nuclear sites while backing pioneering research into fusion, which could offer a limitless source of clean energy.” 

Harnessing Digital Twin technology 

The focus of the LongOps programme is with regard to the deployment of Digital Twin technology. This system uses virtual models to pair online and physical worlds in a bid to produce a detailed analysis of data. It is a formative technology for the Internet of Things innovation that enables optimisation of operations, increased productivity and the capacity to do tests in the virtual world before the development of new applications in the physical world. With this innovation, authorities can accurately forecast potential issues on maintenance and operations. 

By using Digital Twin technology, authorities in project LongOps can create software that will allow RACE to show how machines in the decommissioning processes are used and controlled during operations.  

All developments from LongOps will be used to upgrade, maintain and dismantle nuclear fusion equipment, including the Joint European Torus. In addition, the robotics deal is seen to usher direct benefits to the UK and Japan by increasing employment opportunities, enhancing “fusion-adjacent” technology and upgrading scientific and engineering processes. This transfer of knowledge harnessed from the LongOps project can show the commercial potential of investments in fusion and robotics programmes. 

“This innovative research alliance with Japan will ensure we share our expertise in robotics to address complex challenges such as nuclear decommissioning while helping to secure highly skilled jobs across the country as we build back better from the pandemic.” 

The LongOps project is part of the £450 million (US$ 614.87 million) investment earlier pledged by the UK Government in the robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) projects since 2014. The investment helps connect various UK RAS businesses and government to work together in developing smart technologies that can provide improved productivity and more benefits to society. 

The UK and Japan join a slew of countries and organisations that have made significant investments in the field of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). As earlier reported by OpenGov Asia, a tech company in Malaysia has put up a highway monitoring system that uses AI and innovative technology in its Smart Surveillance System. This move is in line with efforts to ensure the safety and satisfaction of travellers. It also complements efforts made under the Industrial Revolution 4.0 roadmap earlier introduced by the government. 

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