Atkins, a consulting engineer and a part of the SNC-Lavalin Group, has signed an agreement with UK-based prosthetic hand developer COVVI to build a robotic solution that offers a near-human capability to work in nuclear environments.

Building on the patented work of Atkins to use collaborative robots in the nuclear sector, the companies will adopt the bionic hand, developed by COVVI originally for use in prosthetic surgery applications.

The hand, or ‘end effector’ will be linked to a robotic arm to allow workers to remotely undertake dangerous manipulations, even in cases which require high arm flexibility.

To be integrated into Atkins’ collaborative robotic solutions in the nuclear sector, the product can be used in glovebox operations to handle nuclear materials and waste, thereby eliminating the requirement for operators to place their own hands in the gloveboxes.

Furthermore, due to COVVI’s expertise in biomimicry, the durability and functionality of the arms are expected to increase significantly over time while also replicating unique human dexterity more closely.

Due to the remote control of robotics via teleoperation, the need for humans’ presence in hazardous areas will be reduced, and in cases where a human operator is required, the time which can be safely spent in the glovebox will be greatly increased. It will also accelerate project delivery times and free up valuable time for the on-site operators.

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SNC-Lavalin head of digital, nuclear Sam Stephens said: “Robotics hold huge potential for the nuclear sector and we expect their use to become increasingly common over the coming decade as the industry seeks to improve safety, increase efficiency and address increasing skills shortages.

“Working with COVVI to reconfigure their bionic hand for teleoperation combines our knowledge of nuclear, digital and robotics capabilities with COVVI’s expertise and world-leading prosthetics. It’s an example of how collaboration is crucial to help accelerate innovation and bring forward new solutions that address some of the sector’s biggest challenges swiftly and cost-effectively.

“The new robotic hand has the potential to reduce risk and improve productivity for the nuclear operators that we work with in partnership with around the world, and we look forward to seeing it deliver results soon.”

COVVI’s Simon Pollard said: “We are delighted to have finalised this partnership and share our plans to expand into the robotics market.

“The robotics market continues to develop at pace as it becomes more affordable, scalable, and customisable. With over five years developing our own world-leading, multi-articulated bionic hand, COVVI was Atkins’ preferred choice to partner with to introduce this state-of-the-art technology to the nuclear sector.

“We are excited about the opportunity to develop and implement innovative solutions to create safer, more efficient processes in hazardous environments intrinsic to the nuclear industry”

For the last six months, the businesses have been working together to build the integration between the robotic hand and collaborative robots such as Kinova’s Gen3 arm that Atkins currently deploys to work in its gloveboxes.

Atkins is also building a digital twin to rehearse and preplan glovebox activity to boost efficiency.