Belgium develops drones for radiation monitoring

19 May 2021

Technology that enables drones to be used to carry out radiological measurements has been developed by Belgium's Nuclear Research Centre (SCK-CEN) and the Belgian aeronautical firm Sabca. The measuring equipment was officially attached to a drone yesterday, in the presence of the country's Minister of the Interior, Annelies Verlinden.

Annelies Verlinden, Belgium's Minister of the Interior, is shown the new technology (Image: SCK-CEN)

A scintillation counter is attached to the drone, explained Johan Camps, head of SCK-CEN's Crisis Management and Decision Support unit. "The device measures radioactivity by counting flashes of light caused by the influx of ionising radiation, which in turn indicates the magnitude of the radiation dose. The more light, the more radiation," he said.

SCK-CEN and Sabca anticipate the nuclear sector will soon be able to rely upon the assistance of these unmanned aircraft. The drones could be used as part of a monitoring programme, or during decommissioning projects or emergency planning, to carry out radiological measurements without any human intervention.

"That will result in a significant step up in terms of radiation protection," said SCK-CEN Director General Eric van Walle.

"Drones allow us to chart every last nook and cranny, which is something we cannot achieve using measurements carried out by hand or from a helicopter," Camps said. "In contrast to traditional measurement techniques, the information is actually already being received while the drone is still in the air. We therefore receive information in real-time from a larger number of specific locations."

The project partners emphasised that this is a demonstration project to show how drones can be used and the benefits they offer. The partners are already convinced however that the use of drones will enable the nuclear sector to perform precise measurements across extensive areas. Those measurements will be indispensable, they said, for the purpose of characterising forms of radiation and carrying out radiological monitoring of nuclear sites and their surroundings.

Sabca offers two types of drone - a fixed-wing drone that can hover autonomously in the air for hours and a multicopter, which can carry heavier detectors without sacrificing flexibility.

"Sabca offers solutions that comply with the most stringent standards in the aeronautical industry, where safety is always the primary consideration," said Sabca CEO Thibauld Jongen. "We can then make use of that expertise when carrying out complex missions in challenging conditions ... Sabca is trialling the transportation of medical samples above cities, the inspection of wind turbines at sea and the integration of drones within commercial airspace. We're extremely pleased that our technology can now be of service to the nuclear sector."

SCK-CEN and Sabca were awarded EUR1 million (USD1.2 million) in government funding and are investing additional sums into the project themselves.

"Innovative projects with the aim of improving the protection of the population, the environment and collaborators have my full support," said Verlinden when shown the technology. "This project is the result of a public-private partnership between SCK-CEN and Sabca. The drones will be first used as a preventive measure to study areas for potential radioactive contamination. We are also preparing for possible remediation. Thanks to the detector attached to a drone, measurements can be performed during crises without any human intervention. This maximises the protection of collaborators."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News