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The Rise of the Drones

Published 24 April 2017

The fields around the historic city of Cambridge are alive with the buzz of drones.

Since the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) relaxed its restrictions around unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in summer 2016, the online retailer Amazon has been testing its pioneering delivery drones there. In December, the first package arrived via autonomous drone: a giant leap forward for the technology and its commercial applications.

Shopping isn’t the only industry where remotely-operated aerial vehicles are being trialled. Alongside the UK SMEs Cyberhawk and W3G Marine, ORE Catapult is working to develop pioneering drone technologies that could significantly reduce the cost of offshore turbine inspections when compared to traditional methods.

“In offshore renewables, the operations and maintenance phase of a project involves many tasks that could be automated with the use of drones,” says Andy Kay, ORE Catapult’s Innovation Manager. “Turbine blade inspections are just one of them.

“Here at the Catapult, we undertook a review of the offshore wind industry’s challenges and requirements in the area of drone-based turbine inspections, with the aim of understanding how we can support their wider exploitation.

“We spoke to wind farm operators, inspection companies and turbine manufacturers as part of a wide-ranging consultation, and found that one of the main barriers to the wider adoption of drone technology is the lack of open-access turbine availability.”

The result was the development of the Remote Inspection Technology Evaluation service, or RITE. The Catapult utilises the Levenmouth Demonstration Turbine to help innovative small enterprises improve and commercialise their drone sensor technologies by testing in a safe environment. “It helps them gain credibility and build evidence that they can take to potential clients,” says Kay.

“The other main challenge is facilitating the automation of the drones,” says Kay. “The ultimate endgame for these technologies is that they become fully autonomous, with pre-planned, controlled flightpaths. At the moment, they’re controlled by remote control – but that still requires a highly-skilled operator gaining access to the site. If they’re controlling it from a boat, there are issues around movement, and seasickness… there’s still a lot of work to be done on that front.”

The days of fully-automated turbine blade inspections are not upon us yet, but for now the technology presents a world of possibility. And, as ever, ORE Catapult’s expertise is at the forefront, helping it take flight.

Find out more about our work in robotics, artificial intelligence and autonomous technology.