Createc develops underwater robots for nuclear decommissioning operations

Words: Jonathan Lee, 32 West

NEW underwater robots for the nuclear decommissioning industry are being developed by an award-winning business with a global reputation for pioneering technology.

Createc, which develops and applies technologies for nuclear decommissioning around the world, has won a contract to develop technology for underwater nuclear decommissioning.

Createc has previously demonstrated how off-the-shelf collaborative robots – cobots – can be used for dexterity and operating safely in complex environments and for hazardous remote operations, including dry nuclear decommissioning operations.

Now Createc, working in collaboration with partners, is developing the technology for underwater nuclear decommissioning.

Createc is working on the project with fellow Cumbrian company Fortis Remote Technology, which specialises in the development of underwater tooling for both nuclear and offshore sectors.

This project, UCODE – Underwater Cobot Decommissioning, aims to build on the Iris software developed by spin-out Createc Robotics for operating

robotics in dry nuclear decommissioning, and combine it with Fortis’ established techniques for adapting sensors and equipment for submerged operation. safely enclosing machinery to operate underwater.

Createc CEO Matt Mellor said: “Opening underwater nuclear decommissioning operations to cobots would enable tasks not previously possible with conventional “master-slave” robots.

“This would be of benefit to asset owners and decommissioning engineers as well as cobot makers and the associated support supply chain.

“Many nuclear processes happen underwater, such as fueling and defueling reactors, fuel storage, waste processing and storage and many steps in the reprocessing cycle, particularly in older facilities.

“In decommissioning, items of equipment need to be characterised, dismantled and manipulated, which is a one-time task. Developing bespoke equipment for these applications is costly and often risky due to high uncertainties.

“Recently, significant progress has been shown by Createc and others in using cobots to carry out remote nuclear operations in dry environments. “Although not designed to be radiation tolerant, cobots are typically able to operate in radiation fields around 1,000 times more intense than it would be reasonable to expose a human to.

“Underwater operations are a different case; cobots are all designed to operate in air. Developing bespoke underwater cobots for the nuclear industry is unlikely to be economically justifiable.

“The key contribution of this project is to combine Createc’s experience and technical know-how in applying cobots to nuclear operations, with Fortis’s capability to develop oversuit pressure enclosures with rotating joints that can enable such robots to operate in shallow water.”

The proposed experiment for this project is to demonstrate that a cobot protected for shallow water operation is a low cost, general purpose solution to typical underwater decommissioning operations that might be encountered in decommissioning a nuclear reactor.

Fortis, based in Broughton-in-Furness and Barrow, offers specialist design, specification, manufacture, assembly and operation of remote technology solutions in challenging environments. It specialises in the development of technology solutions where access by humans is difficult or dangerous, including subsea and nuclear environments.

For this project Fortis has carried out the design work on the oversuit – the waterproof jacket – for the cobot to be able to function effectively underwater.

Fortis is also carrying out testing of the innovative equipment at its specialist centre in Barrow.

A demonstration is planned this month to show that the technology can perform its tasks successfully underwater.

Darren Ball, technical director at Fortis, said: “As well as ensuring tasks can be carried out more safely, this technology is designed to be reusable which makes it much more cost efficient.”

The project is supported by RIMA (Robotics for Inspection and Maintenance), a four-year European initiative which aims to maximise the potential of robotic applications in inspection and maintenance across multiple sectors. RIMA provides financial and technical support to cross-border experiments involving small and medium-sized enterprises and is establishing a network of 13 Digital Innovation Hubs.

Image: Demo of technology at Fortis’ test facility. 

Matt Mellor, CEO, Createc

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.”