Robotics and Autonomous Systems: The Economic Opportunity

Published 16 July 2019
Robotics Artificial Intelligence Autonomous Systems Renewable Energy
by Chris Hill, the Catapult’s Operational Performance Director.

The benefits of spearheading robotics and autonomous systems in offshore wind extend far beyond increased safety and productivity. In an article from our latest Circuit Magazine, Operational Performance Director Chris Hill examines how the technology can boost coastal communities and the UK manufacturing sector.

Offshore wind has been one of the UK’s stand out industrial successes of recent years. We’ve positioned ourselves as a world leader in offshore renewable energy development and the Government’s new Offshore Wind Sector Deal, announced in March of this year, sets out the roadmap for at least another ten years of rapid expansion.

The UK already enjoys a competitive advantage in operating offshore wind farms, where we have the largest installed capacity in the world. The industry’s ambition under the Deal is to triple wind power generation in the next decade, so that at least a third of the UK’s electricity needs are met through offshore wind energy generation. Further commitments are to increase UK supply chain content in offshore wind farms to sixty per cent and bring about a five-fold increase in exports.

This means that, by 2030, UK wind farms will increase spend on operations and maintenance from around £600 million per year today to approximately £2 billion per year by 2030. In Europe, the USA and China similar dramatic increases are expected as installed capacity grows.

The economic opportunities to capitalise on the global expansion of offshore wind, and to further cement in UK’s world-leading position in operating offshore renewable energy plant, are vast, not just for the existing offshore wind supply chain, but for businesses in other sectors too.

This is where I see robotics and autonomous technologies playing a vital role. They provide the UK with an unparalleled opportunity: we can leverage our competitive advantage in operating offshore wind plant with our world-leading robotics and autonomous systems sector to develop solutions for a global market.

It sounds like an ambitious goal, but one I believe is achievable by embracing new technologies. At present, a large part of the cost of operating and maintaining an offshore wind farm comes from unplanned inspection and repair missions. These are often carried out by technicians offshore and can be severely impacted by adverse weather conditions. With wind farms being built ever further out to sea, to profit from higher wind speeds, the financial and safety implications of such working practices can only mount.

Thales Halcyon AUtonomous surface vessel ORE Catapult MIMRee
Thales’ Halcyon autonomous surface vessel, a key component in the MIMRee project.

At the same time, we know that autonomous systems are potentially capable of fulfilling most offshore maintenance tasks, but they are yet to be demonstrated in a full-scale deployment in the UK. The Catapult is working with industry to change that and we expect to be launching fully automated missions using unmanned vessels, drones, and wall-climbing and blade-crawling robots in the not too distant future. The MIMRee project, for instance, is working to develop the world’s first fully-autonomous inspection and repair solution for offshore wind farms.

The end-game, one that I can foresee playing out within 10 to 15 years, is that routine inspection and maintenance tasks on offshore wind farms will be mostly conducted by autonomous platforms working with human operators located onshore. The robots will be able to “feel” surfaces through electronic skins, listen to fractures and cracks using acoustic sensors, and see using hyper-spectral imaging. Data processors and analysts ashore will be able to gain insight from the data gathered by the autonomous systems to better plan and predict operations and maintenance activities.

Our vision for industry growth will be best served by big industry and small innovators from multiple sectors coming together to tackle technology challenges. I firmly believe that the robotics and autonomous systems drive will result in upskilling and job creation. The systems we have under development will not be able to work alone, even according to the most futuristic predictions. They are firmly designed to work with humans, who can programme, maintain and supervise them, intervening in tasks that are too complex or require a finer judgement than that of a robot.

That means reskilling our experienced technicians so that their work moves largely onshore, where they can use their expertise for remote deployment of the robotic systems. In order to harness the wealth of data that we expect from the autonomous systems, we’ll also need to recruit and train up digital and data engineers, digital tech developers and analysts.

With much of our operations clustered on UK coastlines, this is good news for coastal communities. If the UK invests wisely now in these future technologies, we could see many former fishing villages and ports like Grimsby at the heart of an industry sporting highly-skilled jobs, increased exports and strengthened supply chains.

It’s clear that innovative new products and services will play a vital role in the further development of the UK’s offshore wind industry, but so too will building on our existing competitive advantage and creating a strong, indigenous supply chain. I am in no doubt that these dual initiatives of supporting the development of new products and services, or repurposing existing technologies, and supporting these companies to expand and grow, creating new jobs and exporting around the world, will be the holy grail to UK offshore wind success.

Want to know more about how robotics and autonomous systems can drive efficiencies in offshore wind O&M? Download our Analysis Paper examining Beyond Visual Line of Sight operations below:

Download our Autonomous Systems: Barriers to BVLOS A&I paper