Our clean energy revolution is in full swing, with the UK actively moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources such as offshore wind. If the UK is to meet its net-zero targets by 2050, our offshore wind capacity needs to expand more than seven times over. This future scale-up of operations, pushing into ever deeper waters, will need the help of robotics and autonomous systems for maintenance and repair to become a reality.
Today, conditions at sea make human-only missions subject to safety risks, delays, cancellations and extensive turbine downtime. This will not be a feasible way of running the super-sized offshore wind farms of tomorrow that will lie in deeper waters, hundreds of miles from shore. Robotic solutions provide the UK with an unparalleled opportunity to leverage our competitive advantage in developing offshore wind with our world-leading robotics and autonomous systems sector to develop solutions for a global market.
But as the industry turns to robotics to carry out tasks currently done by humans, one concern has raised its head – are we seeing the beginning of a man vs machine clash, or is this a match made in heaven?
First and foremost, when we talk about robotic solutions carrying out dangerous operations and maintenance (O&M) tasks instead of humans, that does not mean that we expect RAS to replace humans entirely. Robotic solutions are designed to work with humans, who can programme, maintain and supervise them, intervening in tasks that are only absolutely necessary or require a finer judgement than that of a robot.
The MIMRee system is a cross-sector innovation project to develop a fully autonomous robotic inspection and repair solution for offshore wind farms, moving human jobs onshore and letting robots take on the risky work. MIMRee completed in July 2021 and, as one of the UK’s most ambitious robotics projects, has proven the concept for a fully robotic team, combining artificial intelligence and autonomous systems, to repair offshore wind turbines. The project results open the door to human-robot teams at wind farms within 10 years and robot-run wind farms designed for robotic maintenance by 2050 – a scenario that will be vital to achieving the UK’s net-zero and economic growth targets.
By 2050, such a system could plan its own missions and conduct them autonomously at ‘wind farms of the future’ that are built for repair by resident robots. In a recent report from ORE Catapult’s Offshore Wind Innovation Hub (produced in partnership with Xodus and Orca Hub), it is estimated that this move will shift workers from hazardous environments at sea to onshore control room roles and reduce the cost of energy by 10%, including a 27% reduction in operating expenses.
This fully autonomous solution creates an opportunity to upskill the industry’s experienced technicians so that their work moves largely onshore, where they can use their expertise for remote deployment of the robotic systems. To harness the wealth of data that we anticipate from the autonomous systems, we would also expect to create jobs in the supply chain, particularly within data management and analysis. Ultimately, the robotic systems we have under development will not be able to work alone without human intervention, even according to the most futuristic predictions.
Robotics and autonomous systems in offshore wind can drive upskilling and job creation within the UK. Not only that, robotics can support the skills agenda, particularly bridging the gap in skills created by rapid industry growth by allowing optimisation of work that humans have to do. It also leverages a diversity of skills into the industry, using robotics and automation skills from across sectors in the UK to support the shortage in the wind sector.
So, can robots and humans work in harmony in extreme environments? The answer for the offshore wind industry is ‘absolutely’. We need only look to the space industry for evidence as Professor Sara Bernardini, Royal Holloway University of London, comments:
“The current Mars exploration programme uses a team of robots, from helicopters to rovers, that can withstand extreme conditions. Astronauts are deployed selectively, where human ingenuity is most needed and risk to life is lowest. Likewise, future offshore work will be about humans being in the control room, developing and managing robotics and learning the skills required to work in teams with them.”
To learn more about the project, you can view the presentations from the latest webinar, MIMRee Reports: Journey to Fully Autonomous Offshore Wind Farm Operations, here
Introduction to MIMRee by Hamish MacDonald, ORE Catapult
Autonomous vessel trials facility and moving blade inspection system-compressed by Barry Connor and Andy Cooper, Thales UK
Autonomous deployment and retrieval system by Dr Tom Richardson (University of Bristol), Dr Simon Watson (University of Manchester) and Professor Sara Bernardini (Royal Holloway – The University of London)
Autonomous Robotic Repair System by Dr Sina Sareh (Royal College of Art)
Autonomous deployment and retrieval system by Kevin Driscoll-Lind, Perceptual Robotics