LiDAR helps reveal radiation hotspots at Chernobyl

Posted on April 26, 2020 in Forestry, Hazardous environments, and Research

Routescene UAV LiDAR mapping technology helps create map of Chernobyl forest

Over thirty years since the explosion at Chernobyl, a team of researchers have used the Routescene UAV LiDAR mapping system to help create a map of radiation levels in the Red Forest next to the nuclear power plant.

The research was led by Professor Tom Scott from the School of Physics at the University of Bristol in the UK. The team was made up of researchers from the National Centre for Nuclear Robotics (NCNR). Their aim was to survey a variety of sites surrounding the power plant. These areas included the abandoned village of Buriakivka and the heavily contaminated Red Forest. These sites are close to the damaged reactor. The National Centre for Nuclear Robotics (NCNR) is a consortium of 8 UK Universities. It is developing cutting-edge technology to solve the problem of nuclear waste.

Routescene LidarPod surveying small selected areas in detail

The team operated a variety of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Each drone was used for different surveying tasks. Fixed-wing drones and hexacopter drones were flown by the team over a total of 10 days. They covered a total area of approximately 6 square miles. When small areas of interest were identified the Routescene LidarPod 3D drone mapping system was flown on a DJI M600 drone. The purpose was to survey selected areas in greater detail. Routescene’s LidarViewer Pro software package assisted with generating Digital Terrain Models (DTM). These were overlaid with the results of gamma spectrometer surveys.

Watch the video of the Routescene LiDAR 3D drone mapping system surveying forests near Chernobyl:

High resolution digital terrain models required

We required high-resolution terrain and digital models of buildings for our hotspot identification algorithm. The LiDAR system also helped to show the three-dimensional shape of some of the buildings. The algorithm converts the aerial radiation intensity recorded by a UAV survey into a ground intensity map. Therefore we required a LiDAR based model with a high level of accuracy.”

Dr Kieran Wood, Senior Research Associate at the University of Bristol 

The Routescene LidarPod can capture up to 1.4 million data points every second from 32 lasers. Most importantly, the Routescene UAV LiDAR 3D mapping technology allowed the team to take measurements at a safe distance from radioactive areas.

See the video showing the point cloud and bare earth model used to create a Digital Terrain Model:

Unexpected results

It was well known that the Red Forest still has widespread contamination from radiation. The results did reveal an uneven distribution. Some areas remained highly contaminated and continue to be a danger to visitors.

One unexpected hotspot was identified. This area turned out to be the ruins of a facility that was used to separate waste. This was contaminated during initial clean-up efforts. This area was difficult to identify from satellite imagery. Small fragments of spent nuclear fuel located at the sorting facility were emitting so much radiation that in a few hours a person would receive a dose of radiation usually absorbed in an entire year.

Map of the radiation levels of area around Chernobyl including unexpected hotspot. Credit: NCNR/ University of Bristol

Map of the radiation levels of area around Chernobyl including unexpected hotspot. Credit: NCNR/ University of Bristol

In conclusion, if the UK were ever to have a nuclear accident the team have created processes for mapping radiation levels. They learnt a great deal from their time in Ukraine. In addition the new detailed maps created of the areas surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear reactor will assist with the safety of officials and visitors in the future. Further results are also due to be published soon.

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