Drones Play Key Role in Mapping Radiation of Chernobyl’s Red Forest

drones equipped with this radiation-mapping technology aid scientists in investigating hazardous places from a safe distance

By Stephanie Reid

Researchers from the U.K.’s University of Bristol, working as part of the National Centre of Nuclear Robotics (NCNR) recently traveled to the Chernobyl exclusion zone 33 years after the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant occurred. There they harnessed drones to gain fresh insight into radiation levels at the stricken Red Forest, accurately named after the radiation turned the trees a reddish-brown color.

The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant occurred during the early hours of Friday 25 April 1986 during a test on the Chernobyl 4 reactor prior to a routine shutdown. Unknown to the operators, the reactor core was in an extremely stable condition when they went to insert the control rods to shut down the reactor. As a result, there was a dramatic power surge that caused explosions of steam that ultimately exposed the reactor core to the atmosphere.

Fixed-wing craft were first used to make a general radiation map by flying at about 40mph just above the treetops, in a grid pattern, and places of interest were then followed up with rotary-wing drones. These are used because they can hover and use their sensors to acquire high-resolution, 3D information.

The survey conducted essentially confirmed the current understanding of the radiation distribution in the forest, but in far greater detail than has previously been available. But it also showed radioactive hotspots that were previously unknown to local authorities in Ukraine, according to the University of Bristol.

“Thanks to drones equipped with radiation-mapping technology, radioactive hotspots that were previously unknown have been spotted 

Alongside many of the sites requiring characterisation being spatially-extensive, topographically challenging and with access restrictions, there exists the need to protect those performing the works from potentially high levels of radiation dose that may exist, distributed across such sites.


The gamma-ray spectrometry technology developed by the University of Bristol has previously been used in the first-ever UAV mapping of the Sellafield site in the UK and has also been deployed numerous times in the Fukushima Prefecture in Japan. Because of drones equipped with this radiation-mapping technology, scientists are able to investigate hazardous places from a safe distance.

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