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Drones can prevent the exposure of people to radiation. UAV-based technologies will be crucial for advancing radiation monitoring, including enhancing the application of environmental mapping and improving long-term monitoring of contaminated areas.

In the aftermath of a nuclear accident, such as the one at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in 2011, the radiologically contaminated area in the vicinity of a reactor can be too dangerous for people to enter to monitor radiation. A new drone technology, developed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for use by the authorities of Fukushima Prefecture in Japan, will make this task easier.  

IAEA-developed instrumentation and methodology for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) equipped with radiation detectors, cameras and GPS devices has been tested and validated under real conditions and is now available for practical use in routine or emergency situations. 

Based on this experience, the IAEA offers to assist interested Member States to develop and implement this technology for radiological mapping following a nuclear or radiological emergency.

The IAEA and Fukushima Prefecture first started working together on developing and applying UAVs for radiological monitoring in 2012, providing a complete UAV-based instrumentation system for radiation measurements as well as post-measurement analysis and interpretation methodology and training.

Recent breakthroughs in UAVs include larger payloads, integrated detectors and sensors, improved self-navigation and the ability for the vehicles to work in cooperation with other UAVs as well as ground systems. The IAEA is currently working on the integration and testing of new, improved instrumentation, including its adaptation to the next generation of UAVs. 

 “When combined with high-quality camera capabilities, the new system will allow obtaining a full 3D aerial photogrammetry model superimposed with the radiological maps and radionuclide identification,” said Danas Ridikas, Head of the IAEA Physics Section.

The data collected using the new UAV systems can be used to assess potential radiation risks and help establish appropriate remediation, decontamination and nuclear waste management plans and strategies in Japan.

The UAVs are equipped with radiation detectors, cameras and GPS devices. After the UAV takes off, radiation readings and other relevant information are synchronized with exact GPS position and sent in real time to the pilot at the ground station and stored onboard. After landing, all detailed data is recovered, which means that the photographic/geographic information is reconstructed together with the corrected data of the radiation measurements. The satellite-like photographs and the analyzed radiation data measurements are then made available to decision-makers for further action.