Robots Become Nuclear Site’s ‘Junkyard Dogs’

By Eric Beidel
The new security guard at a famous nuclear testing site north of Las Vegas may lack heart, but it has enough brainpower to keep intruders away from government secrets buried on the property.

Eventually a team of robots will patrol sensitive remote locations at the Nevada National Security Site, perhaps best known for providing the backdrop to 1950s images of mushroom cloud explosions. For now, one machine is making the rounds at the site, which covers an area larger than Rhode Island. The robot’s assignment involves keeping watch over 25 acres of underground pits containing classified government materials.

“It’s like a junkyard dog,” said Stephen Scott, a senior engineer at the National Nuclear Security Administration. “We tell it what area to protect and what to look for and it does the rest.”

Designed by General Dynamics, the machine travels at 20 miles per hour, has night vision and can keep track of inventory, gates, locks and other barriers by using radio frequency identification tags. It is the same robot employed by the Army, which has the ability to weaponize it. In Nevada, it remains unarmed.

The robot’s “brain” is a gold box that contains four computers running on Windows XP. These computers handle everything from processing video to helping the machine avoid collisions. Video feeds are sent to a control station on site, where an operator can speak through the machine to trespassers. The robot, though, makes the first contact.

“Halt! Who goes there? Stand and identify yourself,” it told an injured antelope in November. An employee back at the control station instructed the robot to ignore the animal and continue with its normal routine. So far, that incident has been the only time a human has had to intervene on behalf of the machine. It generally can tell the difference between humans and common desert wildlife, like crows and coyotes, based on body mass.

Four more robots will be deployed at the security site in coming months. The NNSA had investigated spending $6 million to install a network of towers, cameras and sensors to keep watch over remote areas. The agency will save some money using the robots, each of which costs $590,000.

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Ground Vehicles

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