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Robotic system moving into position to weld

The robot's operator issues commands via a virtual reality interface

Final calibration of an INL-designed welding robot.

INL UVS technologies in real world missions.

INL Unmanned Vehicle Systems assets

​​Robotics and Automation for Challenging Environments

Idaho National Laboratory has a long history of specialized applied robotics that include operation in remote would-be hazardous domains. Examples in unmanned mobile robotics and industrial robotics are shown here. The legacy has transformed into a continuation of unmanned aerial vehicle and advanced manufacturing programs.

Unmanned Robotics

INL’s Robotics and Intelligent Systems division specializes in using existing platforms to build smarter robots that can adapt to changing environments, communication interruptions, mission requirements and other challenges in the field. The robotics program dates back several decades and was originally created to provide remote handling capabilities for the laboratory in its role as a nuclear testing station. In the early 1990s, the group branched into formal robotics, focusing on unmanned autonomous systems. As a result, INL adaptive robotic researchers developed the Robotic Intelligence Kernel, a cutting-edge hardware, software and sensor technology that enhances a robot’s capacity to interpret and “understand” its surroundings. The low-cost onboard control architecture gives robots exceptional levels of autonomy and intelligence. The RIK won a R&D 100 Award and a Stoel Rives Idaho Innovation Award in 2006. INL researchers are now concentrating on developing “dynamic path planning” robots that gather information in the field, process it using an experience knowledge base and then decide the best route to their destinations.

INL adaptive robotic researchers specialize in designing low-cost unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance, hyperspectral imaging, air quality testing and other uses that do not require humans to remotely pilot them. One of the primary UAVs being used by the INL team is manufactured by Arcturus. The T-16 is a rugged UAV suitable for applications where reliability and extended persistence are required. Typical endurance ranges from 12 to 24 hours depending on payload weight and fuel load. The T-16 has a generous fuselage providing 729 cubic inches of internal payload space.  Twelve pounds of fuel can be carried in the T-16's wings, freeing up the entire fuselage for payload mounting if required. The T-16 is integrated with Cloud Cap Technology's GPS based Piccolo II autopilot, providing autonomous launch, flight and landing. The UAVs have been used for rapid, accurate and safe collection of ultra high-resolution geographically referenced aerial imagery. Utilizing a 16-mega pixel camera, ultra-high-resolution images are captured from an altitude of 800 to 1000 feet and wirelessly streamed in near real-time to a ground-based operating interface where each image is automatically integrated into a mosaic single geo-referenced map. The system was designed in direct response to the U.S. Air Force’s need for a rapid airfield damage assessment immediately following a strategic attack on an airfield or upon initial evaluation of an enemy airfield.

INL researchers are now working on an unmanned vehicle system that combines multiple assets including UAVs, UGVs, and unattended ground sensors. The system gleans data from aerial and ground surveillance and subsequently generates mission plans for each of the assets rather than depending on a pre-programmed route. This "dynamic path planning" allows robots to have greater autonomy and to adapt to both mission changes and unforeseen obstacles in the field. INL researchers have recently obtained a DJI Inspire 1 UAV. The sp-called quadcopter has four blades that spin like a helicopter and allow it to fly in any direction at any time or to hover in one spot. It streams HD video to two controllers; one controller is for control of the UAV and the second controller is for controlling the camera. This allows for safer operation of the UAV where the pilot is allowed to focus on flying the UAV rather than trying to multitask too much. It has a flight time of between 15-20 minutes depending on the weather and how aggresively it is flown. It can fly in winds up to 25 mph and maintain its position in those winds.

R&D 100 Award-winning Robotics Intelligent Kernel


Industrial Robotics

The Industrial and Hot Cell Robotics program develops innovative systems and sensors that enable industrial processes, such as welding and inspections in hot cells and other challenging conditions. INL industrial robotic researchers are adept at guiding projects from conceptual design to fully functional demonstration prototypes and facilities, to commerical readiness. The program dates to 1978 when it started as a welding inspection group. By 1980, it was conducting welding robotic research for the U.S. Navy.

Today, INL’s industrial robotics team is known internationally for its welding and inspection research and innovations. It has developed methods to test welds on the spot, allowing workers to correct flaws immediately and complete projects faster. The team has patented many of its inventions. It also has worked on several major projects, including current inspection of welds for an oil and gas pipeline company from Italy, a welding and inspection system for the Department of Energy's National Spent Nuclear Fuels program and remote waste-handling systems for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.

Large-scale Example Yucca Mountain Waste Package Closure System Demonstration prototype