Elephants-to-Ants

Modular robotics technology for nuclear decommissioning

Overview

We liken the decommissioning robotics that are used today to elephants. They are big, complex, single purpose machines. Ants of the other hand can achieve many different tasks by combining to achieve goals beyond their own individual capability. Why can’t we use multiple off-the-shelf, low-cost robotics ‘ants’ in place of large, single purpose, costly ‘elephants’?

The project demonstrated an end-to-end solution for nuclear decommissioning. Over 2 years we developed a modular robotics decommissioning system in which a toolkit of robotics modules can be controlled through a single interface and reconfigured to solve many decommissioning challenges.

Approach

All of the robots and tools used in the project we controllable from remote VR control room. The system has been made simple and natural to use. Every tool required was made accessible via a pair of VR controllers. The robots were controllable by gestures through the VR system.

The project culminated in a week of live demo’s at UKAEA RACE’s test facility in Oxfordshire. Demo’s included, characterising the decommissioning environment, plasma cutting waste items, filling up waste containers with characterised waste.

Solution

The project culminated in a week of live demo’s at UKAEA RACE’s test facility in Oxfordshire. Demo’s included, characterising the decommissioning environment, plasma cutting waste items, filling up waste containers with characterised waste.

Conclusion

An exciting output of the project is just how quickly we can reconfigure our robots to demonstrate different capabilities. During the demo week robots jobs changed every day to complete a completely new demonstration. How much time could be saved if we were to use these robots in reality? 

 

Cost saving

Robotics can operate longer per shift than humans with no safety concerns. The robotics are off-the-shelf and significantly cheaper than bespoke robotic solutions. They’re broad capability makes them usable for future tasks.

 

Dynamic solution

Removing a wall might uncover a rats nest of contaminated pipes. A single bespoke robot is unlikely to handle a multitude of unknow challenges. Our system allows users to swap out the machines required for the task at hand.

 

Spin-Out

Following on from this project we launched a spin-out company that has continued to develop the software platform to achieve the ‘elephants-to-ants’ principle.

 

matt

Matt Mellor, Managing Director

Matt Mellor started his career as an academic working in research and development at Oxford University where his specialist field was in computer vision and robotics with medical application. But in writing papers, which he says were mainly “read by other academics so they could cite it in their research”, Matt could see there was a vital component missing.

“To turn that research into a product I learned that you have got to make that happen yourself to ensure others recognise the value of it,” said Matt. “That started me on an odyssey to learn about the full process of technological development. That means not just learning about technology, but also about business, people, finance – all the parts you need to make something happen which is going to make a positive change in the world.”

With that in mind, Matt moved to Cumbria and joined REACT Engineering. “REACT put the emphasis on entrepreneurship and I joined the company to apply what I had learned in nuclear medicine to nuclear engineering.” In particular, Matt was able to apply his knowledge in medical imaging to provide smart, technological solutions to the nuclear clean-up industry.

In 2007, Matt was the technical lead in setting up REACT’s own spin-out – aerial surveying company, Hi-Def, which gave him valuable experience of the process involved in setting up a spin-out business. Hi-Def went on to be a sustainable, successful business in its own right and in 2016 became part of the BioConsult SH group. Meanwhile, Matt set up Createc in June 2010, and as CEO has led the company to achieve impressive growth ever since.

Createc started out with just three members of staff – Matt, Alan Shippen and Pete Rodgers. The company’s mission was to create a profitable business out of computer vision and robotics research and development, demonstrating the value such a service adds to industry. Building on technological expertise in the nuclear sector learned from REACT Engineering, Createc developed its N-Visage® technology which went on to be used in the clean-up following the Fukushima Daiichi accident in Japan.

Closer to home, Createc used its intellectual property in computer vision to build a business opportunity and set up spin-out company, Sportlight. Earlier this year, it launched a second spin-out from its robotics expertise creating Createc Robotics.

Looking ahead, as society and industry move out of a Covid-19 lockdown, Matt sees robotics playing an ever more important role – but warns those who think it will be an overnight change, to be more patient. “Society has always overestimated what technological development will take place over a two to five-year period. But it has always underestimated what development will take place over 20 years,” said Matt.

“Technological development is an accumulation of small goals which build on top of each other. It creeps forward so that over a 20-year period people then look back and are amazed at how much the world has changed. In 20 years’ time we are going to have a lot more robots, and we will have improved collaboration between human and machine. In some areas that might involve helping to remove people from having to carry out tasks in hazardous environments. In other areas it might be giving people more senses and more capabilities.”

Createc applies its thinking and technologies to any problem to find a solution, and takes a flexible approach when doing so. This means that it can adapt for a range of industries and a range of situations. “We look at the way we can do something, not where we can do it,” said Matt. It’s an approach which has seen its solutions applied in a range of industries and settings, including nuclear and defence, rail and security. Among future growth areas for Createc are heavy engineering, major industrial and general construction.

Createc has received two Queen’s Awards in recent years, one for International Trade and one for Innovation, recognising the company’s success in developing technology. The company is also proud to have won awards for innovation from The Institution for Engineering and Technology (IET), The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA).

Createc’s strategy as it moves beyond its 10-year anniversary is to concentrate on research and development to launch a series of further spin-out companies. Two things Matt is keen to influence in the wider economy to help support the company’s ambitions are funding and leadership. “We need to make sure that the UK is more start-up friendly. And we need more entrepreneurs who want to come and run these businesses,” said Matt. “To me an entrepreneur takes complete ownership and picks their way forward and proceeds confidently in the face of doubt.”

“We have had a sustained growth rate of 40 per cent, and we are focused on continuing to grow at this rate. In the first ten years we have grown from a company with three people turning over £180,000 to 30 people turning over £3.5m. To sustain that level of growth by the end of the next ten years we would have 300 people turning over more than £60m.”

Matt has a clear vision of how the company will keep driving forward, and his motivation and appetite to lead the company to further success is clear. “My motivation comes from bringing something completely new to life which results in the world being a better place,” he said. “Seeing all the pieces come together and creating this thing which creates an economic benefit and also has a positive impact on the world is really satisfying.”