After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, Dr Thomas B Scott, Executive Co-Director of the Bristol-Oxford Nuclear Research Centre set out with his team to create a drone that detects radiation levels on nuclear sites

What the main idea behind the Advanced Airborne Radiation Mapping (AARM) drone?

The idea is to use drones mounted with special radiation detecting payloads as a much preferable alternative to humans when responding to nuclear incidents as well as for more routine monitoring and mapping activities on nuclear sites. We were inspired to do this after the Fukushima incident when such a technology was simply not available but would have made the emergency response much more effective. 

How do you think it can do ‘good'?

It removes the need to put people into high or unknown intensity radioactive environments. This means the drone is put into the dangerous area and not people. Drones are much more tolerant of radiation exposure and won't get radiation poisoning or cancer.

Equally, we sincerely hope to use our drone in Japan on a routine basis to help verify that people's homes are safe to return to in the 'cleaned' parts of the Fukushima fallout zone. The returning people want independent expert verification that their homes and land are safe to return to. This includes monitoring the entire outer surface of buildings - most especially the roofs and gutters.

In any future event like Fukushima, our technology can provide rapid (real-time) information on the spread and intensity of any released radiation. This is incredibly important for guiding government decisions about evacuating people to keep them safe.

What are you working on now that you’ve made it to the final stages?

We've got a version of the radiation mapping payload which goes into cars and are also working on devices for backpacks, pipe-crawlers and even a submersible (ROV) version. We've also added the capability to send data over the mobile phone network instead of radio for mapping in areas where topography or buildings would block medium/long range data transmissions.

What field trials or testing have you done?

The technology has been used in two expeditions (in 2014 and 2015) to the Fukushima fallout zone in partnership with Kyoto and Bristol University. We were also the first people to ever fly a UAV over Sellafield site in the UK, conducting 15 mapping flights in April 2014. 

We have also flown on over 10 different radioactive sites in Portugal, Romania and across the SW of England. In short, we've done lots of field testing and have a very robust system that is well tested and reliably produces results.

Are you excited?

A mixture of excited and nervous. I really want the world to be impressed with our technology and our reasons for developing it. What we've developed will potentially safeguard many thousands of lives across the globe.