A typical day for University of Tennessee nuclear engineering undergraduate James Ghawaly involves programming and  delivering commands to a ground-based robot. With an interest in nuclear security,  

Ghawaly joined the Nuclear Engineering Science Laboratory Synthesis (NESLS) program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to further explore the subject.   

ORNL Undergraduate Research Profile:  James Ghawaly

In the Nuclear Engineering Science Laboratory Synthesis program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, James Ghawaly programs an autonomous robot to support radiation detection missions.

Alongside Dan Archer, Ph.D., in the Nuclear Security and Isotope Technology Division, Ghawaly is developing an autonomous ground-based robot that will be used to carry a wide array of sensors to support radiation detection missions. Examples of such sensors include radiation detectors, spatial imaging, cameras, etc. The control mechanisms on this robot allow the user to place a line on the ground – both indoors and outdoors – that the robot will follow at a specified speed. The robot can also sense different shapes and color markers on the ground so that the user can set predefined commands that the robot will follow along the path.   

“Experimental repeatability is extremely important in validating the result of a data collection mission,” Ghawaly explained. “An autonomous robot with the capability of repeatedly following a defined path at a programmable speed allows data collection missions to be repeatable and the results of each mission to be reliably similar.”  

The array of sensors implemented in the robot’s control system – its machine vision and automated guidance – sets the foundation for further research in autonomous robot technology. It places the technology one step further towards creating fully autonomous robots that can navigate their own environment, a feature that opens a broad field of potential applications for this robot.

“I have always wanted to do something that I feel is important and will help keep people safe,” Ghawaly said. “Being able to contribute to projects in nuclear security has allowed me to accomplish that goal and develop the knowledge necessary to continue doing that.”  

Through the program, Ghawaly has been able to hone his hands-on research skills as well as his ability to effectively communicate. Interacting with researchers across the lab has exposed him to diverse skill sets and approaches to problems.   

“Nuclear security hosts a wide range of individuals coming from different disciplines. It doesn’t just require nuclear engineers and physicists to accomplish the goals,” Ghawaly explained. “Being able to collaborate with people outside of nuclear engineering has really broadened my understanding of multidisciplinary teamwork, a skill that I will certainly need in my future career.”  

As a senior student, Ghawaly is nearing the end of his undergraduate studies. After completing his bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering, he will begin his graduate career in the doctoral nuclear engineering program at UT with a radiological concentration. He believes the skills he developed at ORNL will benefit his educational aspirations.

“Whether it be at a national lab, private industry, or in my own business, I see myself continuing to work on projects related to national nuclear security with a focus on the radiation detection aspect of the field,” Ghawaly said.   

The NESLS program is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy.