Toxic Site Cleanup: How the Tools We Use Help Emergency Response Teams, Too

Automation, smart technologies and drones have been game changers in a wide range of heavy industries, from improving aggregates stockpile management and mining operations to making waste company operations more efficient.

But the revolutionary power of drones, robots and automated mapping isn’t limited to heavy industries. Companies seeking to control or remediate contamination on their own sites can also put these technologies to use.

Here’s how.


Drones in Dangerous Areas

Drones have taken center stage in many discussions of new technology applications, in areas ranging from basic recreation or private security to military applications. In 2013, researcher Andreas Raptopoulos indicated that areas inaccessible to humans in physical form no longer need to be inaccessible to our curiosity or our ability to gather data: Drones can take over many of the information-gathering tasks.

In the context of a dangerous or hazardous pollution or spill site, the applications become even more valuable: information-gathering and cleanup.

Scientist Vijay Kumar has pushed the envelope in this area by suggesting “swarms” of drones that can not only fly over the landscape, gathering and analyzing data in places humans cannot safely go, but cooperating with one another to develop a more comprehensive picture of the area.

It’s easy to see how a team of small drones in a hazardous area could provide more data through cooperation than one larger drone could gather on its own. Equipping each drone with only the equipment necessary to its own task, like the intuitive AI suggested by Maurice Conti or the miniature multi-spectrum cameras researched by scientists like Sergei Lupashin, is one option.

Mapping is another option drones offer us, according to Olivier Kung. Even a drone with simple cameras can help improve mapping, and far more complex options exist or are being developed. Multi-spectral cameras, lidar, sensors that allow the drone to “see” and avoid certain objects or concentrations of certain chemicals or radiation, and similar tools can all be used to turn robotics into the ideal tool for assessing and addressing cleanup sites.


Using Drones at Nuclear Waste Sites

One of the biggest challenges of nuclear waste site cleanup is the dangerously toxic effects of radiation exposure — and the fact that technologies meant to protect humans from that exposure, as well as means of treating exposure after it has occurred, are still incomplete.

In order to protect the health and safety of workers, many researchers are looking to the use of drones to help map and clean nuclear waste sites. At the University of Nevada College of Engineering, researchers in the Autonomous Robots Lab, under the direction of Assistant Professor Kostas Alexis, are working on a drone that can fly into irradiated areas to pinpoint sites of radiation and toxic chemicals.

The robot offers inertial sensors, lidar, cameras, and radiation and chemical sensors, allowing it to map its environment in a number of modalities. It can learn the layout of an environment, remember important details and produce detailed analyses.

While drones adapted to nuclear sites are still in production, ground-based robots have been in use on nuclear and other toxic sites for some time — with mixed results.

Ground-based robots sent into the Fukushima nuclear site were destroyed, some in less than a single day, due to radiation levels far in excess of their capabilities, according to Niamh McIntyre.

At Environmental Leader, Jessica Lyons Hardcastle tracks the progress of ground-based robots assigned to data collection and cleanup at Sellafield, a nuclear decommissioning site in Cumbria, England, a project that University College London researcher Paul Dorfman estimates will cost as much as $12 billion.



Chemical Spills and Tech-Assisted Cleanup

While nuclear radiation is a major concern, nuclear sites are relatively rare in comparison to chemical spills, which occur at manufacturing, storage and similar sites throughout the world — as well as on college campuses.

A recent chlorine spill at the University of Arizona, as reported by Mike Truelsen at local NBC station KVOA, released dangerous chlorine vapors that sent a truck driver to the hospital. The incident offers an example of the type of site that can benefit from the use of robot or drone cleanup tools — which is why many risk management teams call for technological tools when appropriate.

Drone video and mapping of chemical spills or releases are often one of the first lines of defense when it comes to evacuating affected areas or containing the spill. Drones also allow authorities and hazmat teams to determine what was released without risking the health of team members. That’s why Turf writer John Fech recommends adding technological tools to your contingency plan when possible.

Even at the municipality level, emergency responders are folding this kind of technology into their arsenals, and they’re holding drills to test its effectiveness. Twin Falls, Idaho, for example, held a chemical-spill drill last year to test local authorties’ ability to react quickly to such a disaster, Emergency Management magazine reported at the time.


What Other Technologies are Out There?

Research on smart technology uses at cleanup sites continues to progress rapidly, notes Scott Marshall Payne, author of Strategies for Accelerating Cleanup at Toxic Waste Sites. Companies looking for the most efficient options must often expand their searches beyond their conventional sources to find what they need. Companies like Createc have been called in to address nuclear waste sites in places like Sellafield and Fukushima.

The EPA collects information on technologies used in the remediation of contaminated sites and publishes periodic reports on the options available and their uses in the field. These reports make it easy for companies seeking better options to learn more about field-testing technologies and their real-world impacts. The database can be searched by technology type, contaminant type, demonstration date and other variables.

Companies that specialize in smart mapping and drone use for heavy industries can also help provide guidance, as can those that focus on site management and cleanup.

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