Drone Company Helps Researchers Dive Into Chernobyl Reactor Five With Elios 2

A drone entered Chernobyl's reactor five for the first time in 33 years to check for uranium.
Brad Bergan

A drone called Elios 2 recently inspected one of the most dangerous and inaccessible places in the world — the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, where a core meltdown triggered a major disaster in April of 1986, according to a blog post shared on the drone-maker Flyability's website.

The researchers confirmed the absence of nuclear waste in reactor five for the first time since the 1986 disaster.


Company drone dives deep into Chernobyl's reactor five

Roughly one year ago, pilots from Flyability carried out a mission at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, where the disaster of 1986 happened. Back then, the fifth block of the Chernobyl Plant was still under construction — and was nearly finished. But because of the obvious need to leave, no record was ever made about whether the holding pools in reactor five had their depleted uranium fuel bars installed.

Thirty-three years later, the decommissioning team at Chernobyl's needed to see if any nuclear waste remained inside reactor five. This is why they remote-piloted the Elios 2 inside the cramped reactor.

Their objectives included discovering any remaining nuclear fuel bars in the reactor, in addition to finding out whether the primary equipment likely used in the reactor was mounted.

Elios 2 drone worked with notably inexperienced pilot team

Typically, the Elios 2 is used for nuclear power plant inspections — where it works to improve safety and reduce turnaround times. For example, it can determine how much time is needed to shut down a plant for inspection and critical maintenance tasks. But this was the first time one of Flyability's drones was used to decommission a nuclear power plant.

"The Chernobyl mission was stressful, because the wall we had to fly over was 70 meters [230 feet] high, so there was no way we could get the drone back if the signal was lost," said Flyability's Training Manager Charles Rey, who was also one of the leaders of the checkup mission. "But the mission was a great success, and the people in charge at Chernobyl were very happy with the video and images we were able to collect inside Reactor Five."

The decommissioning team at Chernobyl was surprisingly not experienced in using drones to collect visual data remotely, according to Flyability's blog post. But the Elios 2 possesses a unique tool for the task, since it rests inside a protective cage, which lets it enter tight, confined spaces to gather visual data for pre-maintenance or inspection jobs.

While the reactor is structurally safe, access to areas inside of it — where nuclear waste could have lied in wait — was practically impossible because the entry areas were too high above the ground.

Chernobyl's reactor five holding pools contain no nuclear waste

Of course, Flyability's Elios 2 wasn't the first drone to enter Chernobyl. In October, Boston Dynamic's robot dog Spot was seen walking around the abandoned nuclear power plant in Ukraine — as part of a test run in Exclusion Zone conditions under the leadership of a team from the University of Bristol.

To complete the mission, Flyability pilots stood in the center of the reactor, within a pit roughly 83 ft (25 m) deep — which would be totally inaccessible to humans if the reactor were still active.

With the help of Elios 2, the drone pilots were able to fly into reactor five and gather enough data on a visual basis to confirm that the pools were empty and no nuclear waste remained anywhere in the structure.

Drones, robots to uncover secrets of hard-to-access spaces

These latest findings are critically important because no evidence revealing the status of the holding pool was previously available. After the mission, the Chernobyl decommissioning team aimed to include their visual data and evidence collected during the Elios 2 mission in a report submitted to international authorities — to update the status of the plant's ill-fated reactors.

While there was no trace remaining of nuclear material in reactor five of the Chernobyl facility, these latest findings serve to remind us how long-inaccessible places — whether from disasters or natural environment — will become increasingly accessible to research. And not only on Earth, but in space — on asteroids and other planets, too.

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