UAVs doing the dirty work in war and nuclear inspections

March 14, 2023  - By

Now that balloon-season appears to be ending, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) are seeing more use in the war in Ukraine. With the delivery of an updated fast transport craft to the U.S. Navy, autonomous ship operations are expected to be tested extensively. In addition, use of collision-protected UAV is demonstrating high returns for nuclear facility inspections.

UAVs used in Russia-Ukraine war

UAV attacks on Moscow seem to be escalating. A Ukrainian UJ-22 UAV allegedly crashed March 2 near the village of Gubastovo, about 60 miles from Moscow. It’s not clear what the intended target was, or whether the UAV was armed, but an undamaged Gazprom gas plant is close to where the UAV crashed.

The UJ-22 UAV has a maximum range of about 500 miles. Therefore, to maximize its range, it’s unlikely that a big payload was onboard. It may have been just an attempt to assess how far the UAV could penetrate Russian airspace and which targets are in range from Ukraine’s border.

In an earlier apparent UAV attack, the Krasnodar oil facility about 500 miles from the Ukraine border was damaged. A group of Belarusian partisans announced that it attacked and damaged a Beriev A-50 Airborne Warning and Control aircraft (called Mainstay by NATO) using UAVs at the Machulishchy airfield near Minsk, escaping back into Belarus without incident.

The peaceful use of UAVs for the good of humanity seems to be taking a backseat in the escalating Russian-Ukraine conflict, where armed UAVs are enabling previously unheard-of incursions. Russia will likely respond, hopefully limiting action to legitimate military targets as Ukraine has done. However, the existing Russian stock of Iranian-made Shahed 136 “loitering munition” and the Mohajer-6 reconnaissance UAV might be running low. Ukraine has shot down at least 24 Shahed 136 UAVs through January and February and Russia has recently reduced its UAV attacks on Ukraine.

US Navy relies on autonomous capabilities

The U.S. Navy is making great strides in its efforts to incorporate ships with autonomous capability into its fleet. Several developments initiated in 2008 have led to the creation of a fleet of 12 Spearhead EPF Expeditionary Fast Transport ships built by Austal USA. The latest ship, the USNS Apalachicola EPF-13, has been outfitted during build with complete autonomy and has just joined the fleet. The EPF fleet is designed for the rapid deployment of troops, tanks/armaments and heavy equipment. The latest EPF-13 — built by Austal USA, L3Harris and General Dynamics Mission Systems — has a range of 1,200 miles, can accommodate the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, and clocks in at a maximum speed of 40 knots.

Image: Austal USA

Image: Austal USA

The earlier ships incorporated automation of hull, electrical and mechanical/power systems, which are all now accessible on the bridge. The latest EPF-13 has added automated maintenance, health monitoring and mission readiness. The EPF 13 Apalachicola comes with the ability to run independent unmannered operations for up to 30 days. At 337 feet long and displacing 362 tons, the EPF can carry up to 600 tons of weapons and equipment, while running a draft of less than 15 ft. Alternatively, EPFs have sufficient capacity to transport 312 soldiers over short distances, plus a crew of 41 when fully manned.

Inspecting nuclear facilities with UAVs

Clean-up operations at nuclear waste facilities are continuing to use UAVs for inspection and assessment of locations that are difficult to access and potentially contaminated. Flyability intends to add a Miron RDS-32 radiation sensor to its Elios-3 UAV family to gather in-situ radiation measurements while inspecting complex confined spaces at nuclear sites.

In recent activity at a nuclear plant, an annual inspection of three tank rooms and collection of detailed visual video of a suspected leaking valve were readily accomplished in two UAV inspection sessions of a few minutes each.

The previous manual inspection process required the plant output to be reduced to 20% of normal capacity over a six-hour cooldown. When radiation levels became low enough, two inspectors dressed in protective gear climbed down into the first tank room where radiation levels exposed each person to around 250 millirem (2,500 µSv or about 10% of the allowed annual exposure). They took a few still pictures and measured radiation levels, then exited each hot area before repeating the process for the other two tank rooms. The whole time, the productive output of the plant was significantly reduced. Another six hours was required afterwards to restore the plant back to full output, never mind that personnel were exposed to a bunch of radiation.

Flyability’s solution is to fly an Elios UAV down into each tank room, take high-resolution video of the entire area in 1-2 minutes and repeat the process for each of the other tank rooms, without reducing plant output power. For detailed inspection of the suspected valve, the UAV was flown deeper into the reaction vessel. Detailed video was collected and the UAV was extracted — all within about 10 minutes.

The bottom line is that generation of around 4.8 GW of power, worth maybe $456,000, was saved using the Elios UAV inspection approach. No one was exposed to the higher radiation levels inside the facility, and significant time was saved for both the annual and suspected valve inspections. Incidentally, the valve in questions was cleared of any potential leaks.


In summary, developments in autonomy include use in the Ukraine-Russian war, more ship automation for the U.S. Navy, and more efficient inspection of nuclear facilities.

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About the Author: Tony Murfin

Tony Murfin is managing consultant for GNSS Aerospace LLC, Florida. Murfin provides business development consulting services to companies involved in GNSS products and markets, and writes for GPS World as the OEM Professional contributing editor. Previously, Murfin worked for NovAtel Inc. in Calgary, Canada, as vice president of Business Development; for CMC Electronics in Montreal, Canada, as business development manager, product manager, software manger and software engineer; for CAE in Montreal as simulation software engineer; and for BAe in Warton, UK, as senior avionics engineer. Murfin has a B.Sc. from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in the UK, and is a UK Chartered Engineer (CEng MIET).