Alex Louden is Senior Technology Acceleration Manager at the Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult. On December 7th, he is hosting a webinar ‘Robotics and AI: What’s Next for Offshore Energy?’ that is jointly organised by ORE Catapult in partnership with the Net Zero Technology Centre and ORCA Hub.
The arguments in favour of robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) are powerful. They promise to solve the biggest logistical challenges for offshore wind farms as they grow in number and scale. Just consider that the UK’s wind farm fleet will go from having 10 million bolts installed to 79 million bolts by 2050 (all of which need regular inspection and maintenance), and you will appreciate the scale of even the ‘small’ tasks we face.
Robotics will not only reduce the need to deploy people to hazardous environments, but Turbines will be inspected more regularly and have pre-emptive maintenance carried out –rather than reactive repair. Turbines will last longer at sea. That helps our industry reduce its costs, the volume of resources required, and its carbon footprint.
Many in our sector are excited by these possibilities, and few remain to be converted. Where hesitation occurs, it tends to be around the impact on jobs.
At the time this article is published, we are mid-way through a £3 million redevelopment of the RAS facilities at our National Renewable Energy Centre in Blyth using funding secured through the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP). These will include a remote-control centre for trialling this robot-human way of working, as well as new simulation facilities for testing and training. There, we’ll demonstrate how people and robots will combine in a way that supports the expansion of our sector, as well as driving the creation of high-tech businesses and jobs.
Defining the innovation challenges
This summer, we teamed up with ORCA Hub and Xodus to conduct deep-dive interviews with industry stakeholders on their future RAS requirements. In the final report ‘Quantifying the Impact of Robotics in Offshore Wind’, we identified five pressing challenges.
Challenge 1: Going beyond inspection
We need to take robotic technologies beyond inspection and extend their capabilities to maintenance and repair. The manual dexterity needed to carry out such complex tasks as resurfacing a blade has been demonstrated in lab conditions, but we expect another five years or more will be needed to replicate it in a real-world environment.
Challenge 2: Multifunctionality
The second challenge is to achieve multifunctionality within a single platform (for example, to carry out the chain of tasks needed to inspect, report and repair defects in blades). We are already seeing this level of versatility in our innovation projects. Just in the four years they have worked with us, BladeBUG Limited has adapted its ‘blade crawler’, so that it can also scale turbine towers and nacelles, inspecting bolt torque as well as multiple different tasks on blades. Blade repair functionality is now being developed too.
Challenge 3: Acrobatics
Likewise, when it comes to aerial robotics (drones), inspection is now down to a fine art and autonomous capabilities are well demonstrated by companies like Cyberhawk. We now need to stretch the laws of aerodynamics so that drones can lift tools or transport other robots from vessels and platforms to blades and nacelles. Subsea ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) face a similar mechanical challenge: they will require a better hover capability for the shallow waters where offshore wind farms are currently located, as many were originally designed for deep-water oil and gas sites.
Challenge 4: Cognition
For challenge number four, we need to refine the artificial intelligence (AI) that will drive these robotic platforms. Few robots have achieved a sufficiently refined understanding of the contextual relevance of objects and features they encounter in dynamic offshore environments.
Challenge 5: Data
The fifth and final challenge is about transmitting and leveraging the data that robots can collect. The value of collecting lots of data will be when it is fused together to provide a holistic, helicopter view of the health of the asset. Similarly, being able to pool the data from as many assets as possible in a shared sector “data lake” – a secure and anonymous database of all turbine data – will provide the industry greater insight into how to best manage individual assets
How? How? How?
Solving the remaining barriers to RAS in offshore wind is a priority for ORE Catapult. Alongside our investment in facilities, we are participating in a new project with ORCA Hub and the Net Zero Technology Centre that will identify the remaining gaps in the UK’s development ecosystem and steps to resolve them.
I’ll be talking to leading experts from both organisations on the innovation challenges and the resources we are making available to developers at our upcoming virtual event on December 7: ‘Robotics and AI: What’s Next for Offshore Energy?’ You’ll also get to meet eight of the most exciting developers from the RAS programmes run by ourselves, ORCA Hub and Net Zero Technology Centre, where you’ll hear about some outstanding solutions.