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Robotic ‘dogs’ carry out pioneering surveys at Orford Ness

Two robots that resemble dogs sitting down in the sunshine outside one of the concrete pagodas at Orford Ness.
New technologies are being studied to help survey the pagodas on Orford Ness | © National Trust Images

A robotic ‘dog’ has been used to carry out pioneering surveys of two former weapons testing facilities on Orford Ness.

The use of robotic surveys is a first for the National Trust, which owns and manages the site. Orford Ness was originally a military testing site and is now a national nature reserve on the Suffolk coast.

The surveys are the first stage of a longer-term project and include partnerships with Historic England, civil engineering contractors BAM Nuttall and University College London’s Bartlett School of Sustainable Construction.

The two laboratories, known as pagodas or Labs 4 and 5, are classified as scheduled monuments and are not open to the public and staff due to safety reasons.

Constructed in 1960, the buildings were two of six Cold War laboratories used as test cells to carry out environmental tests on the atomic bomb. The tests were designed to mimic the rigours to which a weapon might be subjected before detonation, including vibration, extremes of temperature, shocks and G forces.

Although no nuclear material was involved, a test failure could still have resulted in a catastrophic explosion. For this reason, the laboratories were specially designed and constructed with a shingle top which would absorb and dissipate if an explosion occurred.

Pagodas at Orford Ness National Nature Reserve, Suffolk
The pagodas are no longer accessible to staff or visitors due to safety reasons | © National Trust Images/John Millar

“This is a really exciting opportunity for us to see inside Labs 4 and 5 – the ‘pagodas’,” says Glen Pearce, operations manager at Orford Ness.

“The buildings have always had a certain mystery about them. When they were built and in use during the Cold War, they were shrouded in secrecy, and after they were decommissioned, they fell into disrepair. Nobody has been able to go inside for several years due to safety concerns.

“This is the first time the National Trust has employed this kind of technology and it’s a key part of our commitment to ongoing research at our places.

“It could change the way we - and our visitors - engage with the structures at Orford Ness as well as other scheduled monuments and buildings deemed unsafe to enter.”

A white robotic 'dog' stood beside a yellow robotic 'dog' outside the concrete pagodas on Orford Ness
Teams from Historic England and BAM Nuttall have partnered with us for the research | © National Trust Images

The National Trust acquired the site from the Ministry of Defence in 1993, but no measured surveys have been completed of the buildings before. As scheduled monuments, they have the same designation as Stonehenge or the Royal Burial Ground at Sutton Hoo, another National Trust-owned site nearby.

“Historic England’s research into the buildings made us realise how significant they are, on a national and international scale,” says National Trust archaeologist, Angus Wainwright. “These are some of the few Cold War buildings that are on this monumental scale and visitable by the public.

“The buildings used to be quite safe so we could go in and out as much as we liked, but now they are getting more risky as the concrete decays. That’s why we are doing this survey in this remote way, without anyone going into the buildings.

“It’s all very experimental, to see if it’s possible to do a really detailed building survey with no human operator in the building.”

In the last few years, the pagodas have also become part of the National Trust’s ‘curated decay’ policy and have been left to nature, including the effects of Orford Ness’ exposed coastal location. The roofs have become nesting sites for lesser black-backed gulls, which are on the UK’s amber conservation list.

The robots have a camera mounted to the top and four hinged ‘legs’, which have allowed them to be controlled remotely and from a safe distance.

White robotic dog stood outside a half derelict building on Orford Ness
It's hoped that the technology can help us to understand how to access other inaccessible buildings | © National Trust Images

Colin Evison, innovation technical lead at BAM, says: “BAM is delighted to have the opportunity to collaborate with the National Trust and other partners in deploying advanced surveying technology at Orford Ness.

“At BAM, we are constantly seeking to evolve the ways in which we capture and process survey information, so the unique nature of Orford Ness is a fantastic opportunity to put into action our agile mobile robot ‘Spot’.

“The robot is an ideal method to deploy surveying equipment in and around the decaying structures sited in an environmentally sensitive location and the mission will provide us with valuable experience and feedback on using the survey technology, as well as the opportunity to exchange knowledge with the National Trust and other participants.

“We are sure that the outcome of the surveying mission will be a comprehensive and valuable record of this historic environment for future generations.”

Jon Bedford, principal geospatial surveyor and team leader at Historic England, says: “We are very excited to be part of this multidisciplinary team with heritage, academia and industry to bring in the latest technology to help better present our fascinating heritage to visitors in challenging environments such as at Orford Ness.

“We look forward to helping find solutions for recording these nationally important structures before their condition further deteriorates.”

In the future, it’s hoped that the data will inform and enhance the way visitors to Orford Ness can interact with the space and help to guide research into the conservation and preservation of scheduled or inaccessible heritage sites.

Dr Vijay Pawar, leading the project at the UCL’s Bartlett School of Sustainable Construction, says: “In collaboration with Historic England and BAM Nuttall, this project demonstrates how new robotic scanning technologies can be used to enhance cultural heritage preservation.

“The findings will help to understand how to use these innovative methods to capture and use digital models to increase wider public engagement and provide opportunities for follow-on detailed study as well as inform efforts to conserve this dynamic natural landscape and its structures in the face of ongoing coastal erosion.”

Visitors in the distance exploring the 'Island' at Orford Ness National Nature Reserve, Suffolk

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