BAM deploys Spot robot to explore Cold War buildings

BAM is using Spot the robot dog to survey Orford Ness atomic bomb test facilities
BAM is using Spot the robot dog to survey Orford Ness atomic bomb test facilities

BAM is using Spot the robot dog to survey former Cold War weapons testing facilities that are too hazardous for people to enter.

The historic buildings at the Orford Ness Nature Reserve (a National Trust nature reserve) were used to test the atomic bomb during the Cold War. They have been off-limits to National Trust visitors and staff for several years.

BAM is working in partnership with the National Trust to deploy advanced surveying technology at the sensitive historic site, using drones and Boston Dynamics’ Spot, equipped with a Trimble X7 scanner. 

The two laboratories, known as pagodas, or Labs 4 and 5, are classified as scheduled monuments. 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.

Colin Evison, innovation technical lead at BAM, said: “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. 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.”

Cold War mystery

Glen Pearce, operations manager at Orford Ness, added: “This is a really exciting opportunity for us to see inside Labs 4 and 5. 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.

“If successful, 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.”

Curated decay

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

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’s exposed coastal location. The roofs have become nesting sites for lesser black-backed gulls, which are on the UK’s amber conservation list.

The work is the first stage of a long-term National Trust project, involving partnerships with Historic England, BAM and University College London’s Bartlett School for Sustainable Construction.

  • The Defence AI Centre and the Expeditionary Robotics Centre of Expertise are holding a robot dog hackathon on 7-9 November. Those attending will have the opportunity to develop Spot’s deployment for explosive ordinance search and disposal.
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