Role of robotics in nuclear fusion

The villainous Dr Octopus used robotic arms to contain nuclear reactions. What technologies are we using?
21 March 2022

Interview with 

Rob Buckingham, JET


A finger selecting an icon on a touchscreen


 Inevitably, robotics will play a massive part in that plant too, which is why this technology is a major priority at JET and the whole project is designed around them, as research facility director Rob Buckingham explains to Evelyna Wang…

Rob - We are not gonna be able to get people inside a fusion power plant. Certainly inside the vessel, almost certainly outside the vessel, and maybe for quite a lot of the plant. We can't put people in, work still needs to happen. We still need to intervene. We need to inspect, upgrade and we'll need to maintain. That's where robotics comes in. A fusion power plant is not a simple thing, therefore the requirements on robotics are beyond what we can do at the moment.

Evelyna - How much does the design of your robotics influence then the design of a plant?

Rob - A lot. It's a big challenge because we've got to think about this whole thing in a different way. We are definitely part of the conversation around the table with the people who are designing the plasma and the people who are designing the heating and drive systems to come up with the best possible design.

Evelyna - So the kind of testing you would do here factors into the build of if you had to implement this.

Rob - Yeah. Behind you is Mascot. This is Mascot-6. The ones you saw over in JET were 4.5. Don't ask me where 5 went, we don't know, we lost it. This is Mascot-6 and we've moved to a fully digital control system.

Evelyna - I see there's little rubber ducks. Are those used for testing?

Rob - Yeah, they are. Yeah. This seems to be our standard test kit, so they're slightly squidgy and we use them for picking things up and putting things down. One of the important things about Mascot is that the operator feels the force being put on the remote arms. If you think about how much a person uses force to do tasks, especially with they're handling and manipulating, you're not really using your eyes anywhere near as much as the sensation in your fingers. Getting that sensation into the operator's fingers is really important.

Evelyna - Are there other applications that you would want to be able to translate the kind of research?

Rob - We are trying to collaborate with as many sectors as possible. The sectors which are most closely aligned to fusion the first one is 'Fission Decommissioning'. Taking apart fission reactors and other systems that were built over the course of the 20th century. Then robotics goes into health, defence, farming, renewables, maintenance. It'll be interesting to see what happens with wind farms as they go further and further out into the oceans. They'll have to be remotely maintained, so they'll have to be designed to be remotely maintained. There are big conversations that are ongoing on that sort of front too.


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