Robert Goldstein of US Nuclear Corp, Lee Cox, Radiation Protection section chief and William Jeffries, Radiation Protection’s nuclear plant emergency response coordinator, adjust radiation detection sensors during the first day of drone training.

North Carolina Radiation Protection Acquires Drone for Radiation Measurement

<p>DHHS&nbsp;Division of Health Service Regulation&#39;s Radiation Protection section&#39;s drone&nbsp;will be able to detect radiation, allowing its human handlers to remain safe distance away.</p>

Author: Mimi Tomei

From left, Robert Goldstein of US Nuclear Corp, Lee Cox, Radiation Protection section chief and William Jeffries, Radiation Protection’s nuclear plant emergency response coordinator, adjust radiation detection sensors during the first day of drone training.
June 25, 2018 - After hours of tweaking the unit after assembly, North Carolina Radiation Protection’s drone was finally ready for its first test flight.

“Everybody clear?”

With a sound like a very large insect, the 45-pound drone took off, stirring up the corn leaves in the field below, culminating three years of work by Lee Cox and staff at the Radiation Protection Section to make this resource a reality. 

The section, part of DHHS’ Division of Health Service Regulation, purchased the drone to send into potentially radioactive environments to collect data so human inspectors can remain a safe distance away. 

North Carolina will be the first in the nation to use a drone for radiation detection. Other states are monitoring the program and may consider establishing similar radiation detection efforts if it is successful.

When Cox came up with the idea three years ago, many were skeptical of using drone technology for radiation protection.

“I discussed this possibility and intention at a national State Liaison Officers conference hosted by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2015,” Cox said. “Most were not convinced that drones could carry the heavy payload needed for multiple radiation detection instrumentation – not to mention air sampling capabilities.”

The drone, called NEO, comes to NCDHHS through a partnership between FlyCam UAV and US Nuclear Corp, who ran a two-day training session earlier this month after two years of research and development for North Carolina.

At the edge of a corn field south of Raleigh employees gathered from various agencies including the Office of Emergency Medical Services, North Carolina Emergency Management and North Carolina Radiation Protection. The first day was spent in a field south of Raleigh, where potential pilots learned how to fly the drone. On the second day, staff spent the morning learning how to use the software, and the afternoon back out in the field.

With eight propellers, the unit has a payload of 19 pounds. Loaded with the radiation detection equipment, the drone weighs 45 pounds. The drone has five sensors for measuring radiation levels.

When it’s out in the field, the drone can measure quantitative radiation levels and report the data back remotely. Once it returns to base, materials from its onboard air sampler allow scientists to analyze samples to determine what kind of radiation is in the air. The electronics on the drone will not be harmed by radiation. 

Like all drones, NEO is subject to Federal Aviation Administration regulations. It cannot be flown more than 400 feet above the ground, and each drone pilot must be trained and pass a challenging exam to become certified. Radiation Protection has 15 certified pilots so far. 

William Jeffries, nuclear plant emergency response coordinator, explained that three methods to protect one’s self from radiation are time, distance and shielding. Since shielding is often impossible in the field, the drone allows the team to remain farther away from radiation and spend less time exposed. This is important since even low levels of radiation can put humans at risk for illnesses such as cancer.

“You have to be prepared, have the equipment in place and be proficient in using the equipment in case something happens,” Jeffries said. “It’s just like any emergency preparation – you hope you never have to use it, but you have to be ready, just in case.”

The drone can do more than sense radiation, and other state agencies may have uses for it. 

NCEM has expressed interest in using the drone, equipped with a video camera, to record images of natural disasters and to locate missing people. The State Highway Patrol could use it to investigate transportation accidents involving hazardous materials and other large-scale incidents. OEMS could use it for documenting deployments of medical equipment. Radiation Protection has coordinated drone licensure training for more than 20 employees from other agencies.

The drone will require continued hardware and the software adjustments as it is prepared for its first mission. As Cox, Jeffries and the drone team move the project forward, they will craft a formal program of procedures and checklists and practice flying.

“Being pioneers in other areas, we are comfortable in a fluid process and realize tweaking is part of the process toward success,” Cox said.

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