Inspecting the blades of an offshore wind turbine can be a difficult task. Restrictive weather windows and extreme conditions at sea combine to create a challenging working environment, while lost revenue from turbine downtime and the cost of vessels and technicians make increasing the efficiency of inspections a top priority for the industry.
The £4.2m Multi-Platform Inspection, Maintenance and Repair in Extreme Environments (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.
Funded by Innovate UK, the programme seeks to demonstrate the world’s first fully-autonomous offshore wind inspection solution. Eight industry partners, led by non-destructive testing experts Plant Integrity, will work together on this game-changing project that builds on existing innovations.
The Catapult will provide invaluable industry insight, engineering expertise, and world-leading representative testing and validation facilities to prove the MIMRee technologies.
The Halcyon autonomous vessel developed by global technology leaders Thales will play a key role, as will a drone system under development by the University of Bristol and the crawling robot BladeBUG fitted with a robotic repair arm by the Royal College of Art’s Robotics Laboratory. An electronic skin, developed by high-tech start-up Wootzano, will ‘feel’ the surface and collect a deeper level of data on the blade surface structure. The University of Manchester will develop a system for transporting, deploying and retrieving the blade crawler, while Royal Holloway University of London will lead creation of the human-machine interface that will allow personnel located onshore to analyse the data transmitted by MIMRee and intervene as necessary.
The project’s core challenge will be to unite these systems into a holistic solution capable of planning, communicating, sharing data, and working together on complex sequences of tasks.
If successful, future offshore wind farm inspections and repairs will look very different from those of today. Autonomous vessels will be initiating and planning missions, before mapping and scanning wind turbine blades upon approach to understand where the robots should be deployed.
Drones will be launched from an autonomous mothership to conduct visual inspection of the blades and transport crawling robots onto the turbine to conduct hyper-spectral imaging inspection and repairs. An electronic skin, developed by the high-tech start-up Wootzano, will “feel” the blade surface and ensure that the crawler is securely attached while moving on the blade.
Health and safety benefits aside, the project is expected to save the average wind farm approximately £26m over the course of its lifetime. And with applications in offshore oil and gas and defence, it also has the potential to position the UK as a world leader in robotics and autonomous systems development.
Bringing together cross-sector partners to develop never-before-seen technology, this is a project that has the potential to shape the future of offshore wind and push the boundaries of robotic intelligence.