Thirty-four years after a bungled reactor systems test led to the worst nuclear disaster in world history, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is still mostly a ghost town, with the exception of scientists, stray dogs, and some tourists with a morbid fascination. That’s due to the high levels of radiation in and near the reactor plant in Pripyat, Ukraine.
Now, Boston Dynamic’s famous robot dog, Spot, is the newest resident. The robo-pup is on a mission to measure radiation levels so scientists can create a comprehensive 3D map to illustrate the distribution of the harmful electromagnetic waves.
On October 22, researchers at the University of Bristol—in conjunction with Ukraine’s Central Enterprise for Radioactive Waste Management—first deployed the quadruped robot, according to Ukrinform, a state-owned information source.
In a YouTube video filmed at the Chernobyl site, David Megson Smith, a senior research associate at the University of Bristol’s School of Physics, characterizes Spot’s new role as a way to study robotic systems in extreme environments.
That way, his team can design new sensors, and therefore better robotic platforms, to autonomously survey nuclear plants. Spot can be seen trekking around the former site of the Unit 4 reactor, which ruptured after a failed safety test in April 1986, meant to simulate an electrical power outage. In the video, you can see the robot dog examining various sites in and around the New Safe Confinement structure, a sarcophagus meant to contain the reactor’s radioactive materials.
This isn’t the University of Bristol’s first foray into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. In April 2019, a multidisciplinary team conducted a series of radiation mapping surveys with a crew of drones. That included the first-ever unmanned aerial vehicle to map both gamma rays and neutrons, according to a press release.
After those tests, which covered the four miles of forest surrounding the nuclear power plant—known as the “Red Forest”—the team identified new radioactive hotspots that were previously unknown to local officials. Presumably, Spot’s job is to find more of these dangerous locations.
But Spot isn’t the first robot to traverse the site of a nuclear accident. In the wake of the partial meltdown of the Unit 2 nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island back in 1979, the need for advanced robotics that could survey and conduct cleanup work became dire. So researchers created the first-ever robot for these purposes. It allowed humans to remotely investigate the damage and radiation levels, according to a March 2019 review in the scientific journal Progress in Nuclear Energy.
It’s not clear how long Spot will be investigating the grounds in and around Chernobyl, but if the robot dog’s many and varied jobs to date serve as any kind of indicator, this certainly won’t be its last dance with the nuclear energy industry.
This article was written by and published to Popular Mechanics on 28 October 2020.