Nuclear Inspections Made Portable–With LiDAR

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Might a backpack make the world a safer place? Not just any backpack, of course. The satchel in question incorporates the patent-pending Sensor Tracking and Mapping (STeAM) system, a backpack-mounted device created by the Joint Research Centre (JRC), the European Commission’s in-house science service. The JRC developed STeAM for nuclear safeguards applications, to provide location information and change monitoring inside nuclear facilities.

The system enables nuclear inspectors to associate all measurements and observations made during an inspection with the corresponding location within the nuclear facility and thereby facilitate analysis and future inspections. By comparing the 3D maps generated at two subsequent facility inspections, STeAM can highlight structural changes that might indicate undeclared modifications or additional capacities within the facility.

STeAM integrates Velodyne’s HDL-32E real-time, 3D LiDAR sensor, which acquires up to 20 full 360 rotations per second as the user explores the environment. The onboard software processes the 3D data, generating the current location and a map of the environment in real-time. A patent application for JRC’s technology is pending.

The JRC creates tools for Euratom (European Atomic Energy Community) inspectors and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which inspects some 700 facilities worldwide each year. For more than a decade, the JRC has deployed 3D laser scanning technology, to verify design information within nuclear facilities.

Technically, STeAM is a Mobile Laser Scanning Platform (MLSP), first described in a May 2015 paper, "Mobile 3D Laser Scanning for Nuclear Safeguards," a collaboration among the European Commission (JRC and the Directorate General for Energy) and the IAEA, and published in Proceedings of the ESARDA 37th Annual Meeting. The paper describes an MLSP as a portable system that combines a mobile 3D laser scanner with on-board processing for real-time localization, tracking and change analysis.

As a working MLSP, STeAM has already been put to the test, quite literally. Last spring, a team of JRC researchers outperformed a mix of 27 teams from academia and industry, achieving the best overall result at a Microsoft-sponsored indoor localization competition in Seattle. The competition attracted teams worldwide to evaluate the performance of various localization systems. Providing accurate position information on people and objects indoors, where GPS signals are not available, has long been a challenge for governments and industry. The Microsoft competition was carried out in two categories–infrastructure-based systems, pegged to installed radio beacons, and infrastructure-free systems, which rely only on sensor readings. The JRC competed in the infrastructure-free category, where it finished in the top spot, with a localization error of 0.2 m, which also surpassed the best result in the infrastructure-based category.

"With the LiDAR-equipped backpack system, our team was able to gather and process 3D data in real time, for immediate feedback, which is why it was possible to win the Microsoft competition," says Erik Wolfart, Scientific Officer at the European Commission, Joint Research Centre, in Ispra, Italy. The STeAM system will be deployed for a facilities inspection in November 2015 for the first time. "In the past, it took a team of eight inspectors one week, using scanners in fixed positions. Enlisting a two-person team for a single day will be so much faster and more efficient."

"As this application shows, mobile 3D LiDAR is the new critical element to effective and efficient inspections of nuclear facilities all over the world," suggests Mike Jellen, Velodyne president. "The mobility of our sensors–the HDL-32E and especially the VLP-16 LiDAR Puck–means faster inspections, and the 360 degrees of freedom our sensors deliver is ideal for mobile/backpack based data-gathering inside large closed rooms. Backpack-based indoor mapping, without GPS accessibility, opens the door to scanning buildings from the inside, and leads to an array of new and exciting applications."

Velodyne is the worldwide leader in the development of real-time, 3D LiDAR sensors for robotics, autonomous vehicles and an array of other applications, including mobile mapping and UAVs. With a continuous 360-degree sweep of its environment updated up to 20 times per second, Velodyne’s lightweight sensors capture data at a rate of almost a million points per second, within a range of 100 meters.

Prior to STeAM, inspectors conducted 3D laser scanning as a static, stop-and-go process, relying on tripods and time-consuming set-up procedures. As the joint paper explains, "although 3D laser scanning provides detailed and accurate as-built information and change analysis, data acquisition and processing using stop-and-go scanning can be a considerable effort depending on the size and complexity of the facility. Recently, new 3D laser scanners with a drastically increased frame rate have emerged. They acquire 3D scans at 10Hz and more–at the cost of reduced accuracy and resolution–and therefore allow that the scanner is moved during acquisition (that is, the data can be acquired while walking or driving).

"JRC developed the MLSP for realtime change monitoring inside nuclear facilities, in particular geological final repositories," the paper notes. "It is also applicable for indoor localization, which allows nuclear inspectors to associate all measurements and observations made during an inspection with the corresponding location inside the nuclear facility and thus facilitate subsequent analysis and future inspections. Mobile laser scanning provides an indoor localization accuracy that isn’t achievable with any other technology and therefore has the potential to significantly increase the inspector’s efficiency and effectiveness during specific missions such as complementary access inspections. Future developments will further increase the applicability of 3D-based indoor localization for nuclear safeguards."

Wolfgang Juchmann, Ph.D., is Director of Sales at Velodyne LiDAR in Morgan Hill, Calif.

A 2.791Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE