Drones to Detect Jellyfish For Nuclear Power Plant

Last month, the UK government’s Drones Pathfinder Programme announced the addition of a new project to its portfolio.

The project, led by Cranfield University and EDF Energy, will assess the feasibility of using unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for the early detection of marine hazards near coastal industries, particularly nuclear power stations.

What Problem is the Project Trying to Solve?

Basically, a lot of seaweed, jellyfish, fish and other marine wildlife get caught in the cooling systems of nuclear power plants in what is commonly called “marine ingress.”

Marine ingress damages nuclear plant machinery and disrupts power generation, which threatens the stability of the energy grid. For example, in 2011, EDF Energy’s Torness nuclear power plant in Scotland was forced to shut down twice in one week because of jellyfish incursions, and it lost about $1.5 million revenue per day.

From an ecological standpoint, ingress is equally concerning. For instance, a 2005 study of 11 coastal power plants in Southern California estimated that in 2003, a single nuclear plant killed close to 3.5 million fish.

While better filtration, use of innovative technology, such as “bubble curtains,” and well-timed shutdowns, can minimize the negative impact of marine ingress. All of these measures are costly and currently administered less precisely than would be ideal.

How Will UAS Help?

Scientists at the University of Cranfield believe that routine wide-area data capture by drones could improve nuclear plants’ early warning systems, which would allow for more timely adjustment of water-cooling mechanisms in response.

According to Angus Bloomfield, a marine biology consultant at EDF, simply improving the early warning system could enable power plants to “avoid the most dramatic effects these [marine ingress] events can bring.” 

To test this idea out, Cranfield University and its partners will first seek to optimize wide-area UAS monitoring protocols using statistical and mathematical techniques, as well as perform an academic review of the benefits of Extended Visual Line of Sight (EVLOS) / BVLOS operations within the context of marine ingress detection.

Next, they will conduct BVLOS UAS trials near an EDF nuclear power station to detect jellyfish and kelp blooms and publish their results for the benefit of other nuclear plant operators, innovators, and researchers.

How Might This Study Impact the Drone Industry?

Nuclear power accounts for an estimated 21% of the U.K’s electricity,  20% of the U.S.’s, and 10% of global electricity.

Although many countries are phasing out nuclear power generation, it’s likely to remain a big industry for many years to come, so mitigating a major pain point could increase demand for drone solutions, as well as funding for further research and development. 

If the use-case proves popular in the U.S., where nuclear power plants are deemed to be critical infrastructure that is vulnerable to espionage, solutions will have to be developed with platforms manufactured domestically or in allied countries.

In this sense, an increase in demand for UAS solutions in the nuclear power sector may benefit domestic drone manufacturers in countries where the solutions are implemented, and shift the commercial drone market share away from DJI. 

Additionally, like airports, nuclear power companies will need to integrate their UAS solutions with effective security and counter-drone systems, given past instances of unidentified UAS swarms around power plants that have raised questions about nuclear plant vulnerability to terrorist drones and (more likely) drone-enhanced espionage

These are indirect effects which are conditional on the program’s success and widespread adoption – two developments which remain in the medium to long-term future.

For now, all that we know is that yet another promising UAS solution is being developed, and that it will be worth following the project to see what happens.

Miriam Hinthorn - Contributing Author

Miriam Hinthorn - Contributing Author

Miriam Hinthorn is an experienced management professional who is currently pursuing her master’s in Data, Economics, and Development Policy at MIT while serving as principal consultant at Consult92.

Miriam developed a love for UAS technology when she served as operations manager at Consortiq. Today, having completed over 30 successful projects in 10 countries, she loves solving a wide variety of logistical, technical, and cultural challenges for her clients so that they can focus on what care about most.

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