Unmanned vehicles and nuclear power plants have had a contentious relationship, both positive and negative. The positive side was highlighted by the response to the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan that was severely damaged by a devastating earthquake in 2011.
Unmanned vehicles were first deployed at Fukushima just weeks after an earthquake and tsunami devastated the northeast coast of Japan. The US company iRobot, now Endeavour, deployed four unmanned ground vehicles (UGV) to the site, including the lightweight, versatile PackBot 510 and the heavy-duty Warrior 710. These UGVs were built for the battlefield, but modified to navigate and endure the hazardous conditions at the facility. The PackBot was equipped for the mission with a full HazMat kit which enabled it to measure temperature and detect gamma radiation, explosive gases and toxic chemicals, and feed all of that data to the power plant controllers in real-time.
QinetiQ North America also donated three TALON and two Dragon Runner UGVs. The US Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory modified the TALONs to be fitted with radiation-hardened cameras, GPS, night vision and Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive (CBRNe) detection kits.
Endeavour has fielded its family of UGVs with defense forces worldwide, hundreds of law enforcement agencies and nearly two dozen nuclear power plants in North America. Its UGVs have performed countless dangerous missions across CBRNe and HazMat reconnaissance and surveillance.
Other nations have developed a range of UGVs for CBRN detection including France with the ECA Robotics Cameleon, the Nexter Robotics Nerva LG and the Thales u-Trooper. Poland’s range of PIAP unmanned vehicles have chemical and radiological sensors the UK MIRA Mace 2 Guardsman has been tested with sensors for CBRN contamination.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) were also used to survey, monitor and video the damaged Fukushima plant reactors. These ranged from the Honeywell T-Hawk Micro Air Vehicle to the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk high-altitude long endurance (HALE) UAV based in Guam that the US Air Force deployed to provide infrared images of the power plant. Equipped with cameras, thermal imaging, and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), the Global Hawk was capable of giving a detailed picture of the reactor area, day and night and all weather conditions.
The use of UAVs at Fukushima also prompted Japan to develop a new generation of indigenous unmanned vehicles. In January 2014 a small twin-tailed UAV jointly developed by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, was stationed in Naime, near Fukushima, flew over the nuclear plant to provide real time data about the radiation level to the scientists, three years after the disaster.
Again, there is a range of mini-UAVs capable of carrying CBRN detection sensors including rotary-wing examples such as the German EMT Museco, France’s SurveyCopters, and Russia’s Zala 421-02X.
While these unmanned vehicles have been extensively deployed to protect nuclear facilities, UAV’s in particular are posing a threat to them
Cheap off-the-shelf micro-quadrotor UAVs capable of carrying sophisticated imaging equipment and significant payloads that could be used by terrorist organisations to pose a serious threat to nuclear power plants and other high-profile targets. Unidentified UAVs have been reported to have breached restricted airspace over US and French nuclear power plants and earlier this year one crashed into a nuclear power station site at Koeberg near Cape Town in South Africa. Although the latter incident was deemed to be accidental, it highlighted the dangers of flying UAVs close to government installations.
Unmanned ground vehicles also offer yet another terrorist attack method. The so-called Islamic State group is said to have used remote controlled vehicles to deliver improvised explosive devices and more sophisticated unmanned vehicles are commercially available.
In addition to UAVs and UGVs, unmanned marine vehicles (UMVs) also pose a threat to potential power industry targets. Many power plants are located on the shores of oceans, rivers, and lakes because they require large water supplies for cooling which opens another threat for potential terrorist attacks from the water. UMVs have long been used by South American drug runners to carry up to one ton of narcotics. If this was turned into a weapons payload, they could have devastating results for a targeted nuclear power plant.
Governments and industry are urgently seeking to develop effective defence systems against the unmanned threat. These include passive countermeasures, such as early-warning systems and signal jamming, and active countermeasures, such as kinetic defenses and laser defence systems.
The UK company Blighter Surveillance System’s AUDS system combines electronic-scanning radar target detection, electro-optical (EO) tracking/classification and directional RF inhibition capability while the Israeli company Rafael Advanced Defense Systems has unveiled a new system that can disrupt UAVs by jamming global navigation satellite system (GNSS) and radio frequency (RF) signals. Airbus DS Electronics and Border Security (EBS) and the US company Dedrone have signed a cooperation agreement to counter threats posed by small UAVs by combining sensor data from different sources with the latest data fusion, signal analysis, and jamming technologies.