“Principles for the Development and Assurance of Autonomous Systems for Safe Use in Hazardous Environments” White Paper Published

Dr. Matt Luckcuck, Dr. Louise Dennis, and Prof. Michael Fisher have been collaborating with partners at the UK’s nuclear regulator, the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR). Together they have produced a white paper entitled “Principles for the Development and Assurance of Autonomous Systems for Safe Use in Hazardous Environments“, available as a PDF via this link and can be cited using its DOI 10.5281/zenodo.5012322.

The white paper provides guidance on designing and assuring autonomous systems used in hazardous environments, such as in the nuclear industry. This guidance is to be considered alongside existing standards and regulations aimed at, for example, robotics, electronic systems, control systems, and safety-critical software.

Autonomous systems use software to make decisions without the need for human control. They are often embedded in a robotic system, to enable interaction with the real world. This means that autonomous robotic systems are often safety-critical, where failures can cause human harm or death. For autonomous robotic systems used in hazardous environments, like the nuclear industry, the risk of harm is likely to fall upon human workers (the system’s users or operators). Autonomous systems also raise issues of security and data privacy, both because of the sensitive data that the system might process and because a security failure can cause a safety failure.

The white paper describes in-depth principles for safety-critical, human-controlled, and autonomous robotic systems. These principles are summarised in seven high-level recommendations:

  1. Remember both the hardware and software components during system assurance,
  2. Hazard assessments should include risks that have an ethical impact, as well as those that have safety and security impacts,
  3. Adopt both a corroborative and a mixed-criticality approach to Verification & Validation,
  4. Autonomous components should be as transparent and verifiable as possible,
  5. Tasks and missions that the system will perform should be clearly defined,
  6. Dynamic Verification & Validation should be used to complement static Verification & Validation,
  7. System requirements should be clearly traceable through the design, the development processes, and into the deployed system.

The guidance laid out in the white paper has been carefully discussed with partners at the ONR, so already provides useful principles for developing safer autonomous robotic systems. The white paper is also intended to spark discussion between academia, industry, and the ONR to develop concrete techniques to realise these principles.

Autonomous Exploration and Radiation Mapping with Mobile Robots

As part of its participation in the RAIN hub, the Dynamic Robotics Systems Group (DRS) of the Oxford Robotics Institute (ORI) has developed a general purpose autonomous exploration planner dubbed: the Terrain Explorer. The Terrain Explorer integrates with external volumetric sensors (either a 3D scanning LIDAR or depth cameras) to build a 3D representation of the robot’s surrounding and to autonomously expand it. To date, the modular system has been integrated with several robots including the ANYbotics ANYmal, the ROSS robotics EXTRM rover and a Clearpath Husky. The Terrain Explorer has enabled the ORI to carry out fully autonomous robotic inspections in complex environments including exploring a UKAEA nuclear storage facility and a vast underground mine. The system integrates with the ORI’s VILENS SLAM system to produce complete LIDAR maps of the explored environment.


The Terrain Explorer finds frontiers to unexplored areas (yellow and red spheres on the image) and directs the robot to the most desirable. Our SLAM system computes the trajectory (yellow path) of the robot and produces a graph based map of the environment.

To employ this system in a radiation environment, ORI has partnered with Createc to deploy a modularised version of their NVisage® / RECON system as part of an Innovate UK funded project. This system adds an overlay to the LIDAR maps detailing the radioactivity of all points in the observed map. The modularised system means that only those software and hardware components not already native to the robotics platform need to be integrated. For the majority of the trials performed, Createc provided a CZT gamma detector and the NVisage® radiation mapping software.

The Terrain Explorer is an open-ended planner which explores an arbitrary space. The system can be constrained by setting a perimeter or time limit for exploration. The planner automatically returns the robot to its starting position after exploration has been completed or should other external factors such as a battery warning be triggered. To do this it takes advantage of the pose graph representation with Oxford’s SLAM system – with the poses acting as a highway to enable efficient backtracking and re-routing. Additionally the system is able to handle communications blackouts by recursively returning to areas where communications previously met a quality of service baseline. Additional features such as preferentially following the perimeter of the space can be configured to take advantage of prior knowledge of the environment.


Here the Nvisage® radiation point cloud is displayed while the robot is exploring. A blue point means that there is no radiation, a warmer colour means that the sensor has detected radiation, the source is located at the green cube.

Several trials have been performed to prove the capabilities of the integrated systems: the system was deployed to an underground mine complex to prove the robustness of the planner in an unstructured and irregular environment. This video shows the robot exploring the entirely unlit facility – using only its own on-board lighting.

Here you can see the system has also been tested in a low-hazard drummed waste store at the UKAEA site in Culham.

A final demo for the project is planned at Createc’s Cockermouth testing facility on 18th February to demonstrate the results of the collaboration through the RAIN Hub’s seminar series.

Professor Robert Buckingham Celebrated on New Year’s Honour List

RAIN’s Professor Rob Buckingham has been awarded an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his services to robotic engineering. The UK Atomic Energy Authority’s (UKAEA) Robotics Director was one of those named in the full New Year Honours list for 2021, which recognises the achievements and service of extraordinary people across the United Kingdom. The awards will be presented by Queen Elizabeth II or her vice-regal representative.

You can read the full article here.

Remote Inspection of the Reactor 4 Shelter’s Western Wall

In October 2020, a Bristol University research team with engineers and scientists from the Interface Analysis Centre deployed a semi-autonomous robot for remote radiation inspection inside the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant (ChNPP) in Ukraine. The objective of this visit was to create a radiation map of the western wall of the Shelter Object, known as the Sarcophagus, a temporary containment structure hastily erected over the remains of Reactor 4 in the aftermath of the accident on 26 April 1986. The Shelter is facing structural integrity challenges and will need to be dismantled the upcoming years to take the contained reactor remains apart.

By deploying a specialised sensor system called YanDavos on Boston Dynamics’ quadrupedal robotics platform Spot, the researchers were able to acquire an accurate dose rate map of the Shelter’s wall without exposing humans to high radiation levels. Spot moved the sensor system into position in an environment where the dose rate exceeds 100 µSv/h, a hazardous radiation level for humans, and remained there until the scan was completed. YanDavos was designed and developed at Bristol University by RAIN researchers, and combines state-of-the-art gamma spectroscopy, simultaneous single point Lidar ranging and 15 FPS solid state Lidar ranging with 4K cameras to produce detailed radiation maps that can be used to plan decommissioning activities. Spot also completed a radiation mapping test around the outer perimeter of the Shelter as a training exercise for its radiation mapping algorithms.

You can watch the documentary excerpt for Ukrainian TV here, and a feature on the RT news network Ruptly here.

Dr Cardoso and Dr Ferrando secondment to NIST – US

RAIN researcher’s Dr Rafael C. Cardoso and Dr Angelo Ferrando were not able to go to their secondment at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the US because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, they have been collaborating virtually with NIST in two different projects.

Dr Cardoso is leading the project on agile tasking of robotic systems with explicit verifiable autonomy. Task agility is an increasingly desirable feature for robots in application domains such as manufacturing. The Canonical Robot Command Language (CRCL) is a lightweight information model built for agile tasking of robotic systems by NIST. CRCL replaces the underlying complex proprietary robot programming interface with a standard interface. In this project, we exchange the automated planning component that CRCL used in the past for a rational agent in the Gwendolen agent programming language, thus providing greater possibilities for formal verification and explicit autonomy. We have evaluated our approach by performing agile tasking in a kitting case study.

The NIST agility lab, with two robot arms performing kitting operations in the real world (left) and in simulation (right).

Dr Ferrando is leading the project on runtime verification of the ARIAC (Agile Robotics for Industrial Automation Competition) competition. ARIAC is a robotic competition which aims to advance robotic agility in industry. Participants in this competition are required to implement a robot control system to overcome agility challenges in a simulated environment. ARIAC comes with a set of score metrics to evaluate the performance of each control system during task execution. In this project, we show how such task-oriented evaluation can be problematic and how the addition of runtime monitors to verify properties given in ISO/TS safety standards can help in reducing the resulting reality gap. In particular, we focused on an initial case study where a safety property given in ISO/TS 15066:2016 is used to synthesise a monitor.


The ARIAC competition.

ISCF Robots for a Safer World Cross-Hub Activities

The Use of Digital Twins for Robotic Inspection, Maintenance and Repair 

The use of robots and AI represents the future of critical infrastructure inspection, repair and maintenance.  Through the ISCF’s ‘Robots for a Safer World’ scheme, four world-leading research hubs; FAIRSPACE, NCNR, ORCA and RAIN, have been developing solutions for use in hazardous and challenging environments, such as those found in the nuclear, offshore and space sectors.

Significant research has been undertaken across the Hubs in the use of digital twins as part of robotic inspections.  To maximise the impact of this research, a new cross-hub initiative has been launched on ‘Digital Twins and Digital Tissue for Robotic Inspections, Maintenance and Repair’. 

As well as enabling the sharing of state-of-the-art research between the hubs and fostering a collaborative community, it is also allowing researchers to continue their research during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown. 

For example, NCNR researchers from the University of Lincoln have been able to control a mobile robot from the RAIN Hub at the University of Oxford.  Teams from the University of Manchester are working to control a mobile robot from the ORCA Hub at Heriot-Watt University as well as robot manipulators from the FAIRSPACE Hub at the University of Edinburgh.

This video showcases some of the cutting-edge research which forms the foundation of the cross-hub initiative.

ISCF Robots for a Safer World – Cross-Hub Activities on Digital Twins for Robotic IMR

Robotic inspection of active sites at Dounreay

The RAIN Hub has successfully trialled a robot in an active deployment at the Dounreay Site Restoration Ltd (DSRL) nuclear reactor research facility, now in the process of decommissioning. RAIN’s remit is to develop robotic and AI solutions to meet user-led challenges in the nuclear industry. A team of RAIN researchers has been working with DSRL to understand where our technology might benefit them.

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Development of pipe inspection robot

Despite the COVID lockdown inhibiting lab access, RAIN PDRA Nick Castledine has been making great progress developing prototypes for a pipe inspection platform. Read on to hear more about his latest research progress. He also presented his work at one of the recent RAIN webinars.

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3D Mapping with handheld sensors at walking pace

In the film Prometheus (2012) a team of astronauts explored the underground lair of the mysterious “Engineers” and used a flying device to quickly map the environment. Slightly less mysterious engineers in Oxford Robotics Institute have developed a handheld mapping device capable of mapping large facilities at walking speed.

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RACE shares robotics expertise

Building networks between research and industry is a fundamental principle of the RAIN Hub. Early meetings between RAIN and Rolls Royce (RR) explored ways in which RAIN could support the short and long-term objectives of RR. In addition to collaborative projects and robotic deployments, sharing the expertise that RACE has in both designing for robotics and the long-term integration of robotics into regular operations was identified as valuable to RR. To this end, a series of four workshops were held between RACE and (RR) over the summer.

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