Offshore wind farms are hazardous environments for the personnel deployed to carry out vital surveys, inspections and repairs. Taking technicians out of these dangerous, far-offshore sites is a priority for the industry, so research is ongoing to develop robotic and autonomous systems that can improve health and safety while also making gains in efficiency and reducing maintenance costs.
First, though, offshore wind owner/operators need to have the confidence and trust in these new systems to deploy them in remote environments. The Catapult’s world-leading robotics and autonomous systems testing and validation facilities helped the London start-up SME Bladebugdevelop its robotic crawler, which uses novel adhesion technology to walk along the surface of a turbine blade, collecting data on its condition.
Because it operates remotely, Bladebug takes technicians out of dangerous situations and can be deployed even when the wind is too strong for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to fly. The Catapult’s cost modelling suggests that a fully-developed inspection crawler could reduce the cost of blade maintenance activities by at least 30% compared to traditional methods.
After helping Bladebug secure an Innovate UK grant to develop the crawler, we provided a third-party witness to the system’s trial and demonstration, giving its developers the confidence that the technology is viable and ready for use in the field.
Our expert engineers provided extensive technical recommendations based on their industry knowledge and unparalleled experience of offshore wind robotics and autonomous systems to further strengthen the company’s business case.
We also produced a commercial study as part of a collaborative Innovate UK project to de-risk and develop a robotic platform for turbine blade inspection, helping Bladebug tailor its approach as a new market entrant. The recently-awarded funding for the second phase of the project will see Bladebug working in collaboration with the Catapult to further develop the robot’s control systems, conduct enhanced representative testing and demonstration, and produce a commercially-ready solution.
The company is now working with the Catapult and a consortium of multi-disciplinary partners on the pioneering MIMRee project, which is developing the world’s first fully-autonomous inspection and repair solution. The £4.2m MIMRee project is an ambitious cross-sector programme combining expertise in robotics, artificial intelligence, marine and aerial engineering, nanobiotechnology and space mission planning to prove that offshore wind maintenance missions can be conducted by unmanned robots. Additionally, in August 2019 more than quadrupled its workforce – proof positive of the Catapult’s impact in creating jobs and economic growth for UK SMEs. The steps taken by this spider-like robot may be small, but with our support the technology has taken giant leaps forward.
‘BladeBUG 2’ is the next phase of the project and will see the robot learn to walk across a variety of terrains, with each leg capable of multiple degrees of independent movement. A tether will be developed to power the robot’s vacuum suction, making it capable of withstanding high-speed winds and challenging surface conditions.
ORE Catapult will support the development of the BladeBUG 2 technology by providing its knowledge, expertise and connections through its engineering and programming team. They will help write the code that will enable the robot to walk as well as improving other capabilities including the safe and reliable deployment and retrieval, enabling technicians to operate the BladeBUG robot remotely on wind turbine blades.
Testing of the technology continues to take place of our blade test facilities in Blyth and the Levenmouth demonstration turbine before finally demonstrating the technology to investors and stakeholders after the project is complete.
Read our latest project press release on the successful conclusion of BladeBUG’s latest round of testing in March 2020 and the company’s role in the MIMRee consortium project for end-to-end autonomous missions to offshore wind farms.