The robotic hand reaches out and touches the football-sized drone hovering inside the curved metallic walls of the unfinished doughnut shaped structure. Black and white panels cover some of the walls. In between, unexplained metal structures are left exposed waiting their turn.
This is a mock-up of the world’s largest operational – if still experimental – nuclear fusion reactor which looks like something off the set of Dr Who. The potential for drones and traditional robots to work together in the confines of a reactor had been turned from theory into practice, meaning that in the future they may be able to maintain reactors like this autonomously. No wonder the researchers are clapping and cheering; this could be history in the making.
The trial was the result of a collaboration between a team from UK Atomic Energy Authority’s Race (Remote Applications in Challenging Environments) and a team from Imperial College to together test the feasibility of using drones in the maintenance of the next generation of nuclear power reactors.
Commercial fusion reactors of the future will need to be able to run without the large number of people required to keep the experimental reactors of today working. It could even save lives: reactors of all kinds are dangerous places for the living because of the intense radiation they produce.