Robots guard nuclear test site

Three robots are helping the National Nuclear Security Administration protect a Nevada facility

Danger, Will Robinson! Robots are now patrolling a nuclear site in Nevada.

The National Nuclear Security Administration is using the robots to patrol remote parts of its nuclear energy storage and testing site, the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS). According to the agency, each of the Mobile Detection Assessment and Response System robots is expected to save the agency $6 million in infrastructure costs and an additional $1 million annually in maintenance and personnel costs.

Described by Aaron Saenz in an article on Singularity Hub as “a camera on a mini-Hummer,” the robots are equipped with sensors and video through which operators can see what's going on as it happens.

The agency has three robots that are designed to perform random patrols and will be remotely managed by operators at a central command center on site. The robots require human intervention only when they encounter suspicious activity or intruders, at which point the operator can use a microphone to communicate via a speaker on the robot. Operators can also manually maneuver the robots as necessary.

"The Nevada complex, about 65 miles away from Las Vegas, is best known for its iconic nuclear weapons test-shots," writes Noah Shachtman on Wired's "Danger Room" blog. Today the site is home to locations for conducting chemical releases that simulate emissions from nuclear weapons production plants, he adds, citing the NNSS website.

With the robotic system, one person will be able to monitor much larger areas than a person could physically patrol. Because the test site is large — more than 1,360 square miles, Saenz reported — personnel savings alone could be substantial.

By using radio frequency identification tags, the robots can also track inventory and barriers, including locks and gates. They can reach speeds as fast as 20 miles per hour and can run for more than half a day continuously without refueling. Currently, the agency has one robot up and running and intends to deploy the other two in the next six months.

NNSA and the Energy Department's Office of Health, Safety and Security bought and tested the first robot in 2009 and acquired two more from the Army's Product Manager, Force Protection Systems this year. The Defense Department's Physical Security Equipment Action Group funded the Army's development of the robots. General Dynamics Robotic Systems began concept development of the robot in 1993.

NNSA is a semi-autonomous agency within the Energy Department established by Congress in 2000. NNSA maintains the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, responds to nuclear and radiological emergencies domestically and abroad, tests nuclear-related technologies, and supports other federal agencies with their nuclear-related initiatives.

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