Electric remotely operated vehicles (eROVs) that perform maintenance and repair tasks on offshore wind turbines are being developed by the National Robotarium in partnership with geo-data specialist Fugro. Deployed from Fugro’s uncrewed surface vessels (USVs), the companies say they are working together to explore how the offshore energy sector can benefit from advances in this kind of autonomous technology.
The £1.4 million Underwater Intervention for Offshore Renewable Energies (UNITE) project aims “to dramatically improve health and safety for workers by reducing the need for potentially hazardous offshore maintenance missions conducted by crewed support vessels.”
The remotely operated robotic systems will address a number of additional sector challenges including supporting industry to reduce carbon emissions, improve offshore turbine productivity through reduced downtime, and make maintenance and repair exercises more cost-effective and timely.
The UK has more than 11,000 offshore wind assets around its shores, with thousands more planned by 2050. On average, each turbine requires up to three maintenance check-ups per year and this figure increases as turbines age and require more maintenance to stay fully operational.
Current industry maintenance methods involve vessels travelling into and working in areas of open ocean where a mix of trained divers and ship-based crews manually inspect and or deploy tele-operated robots for repair of individual wind turbines.
When applied to the whole of the UK’s offshore wind sector, this translates into potentially hundreds of thousands of crewed maintenance missions every year which are costly for business, contribute emissions to the environment and present a safety risk for workers.
In addition to supporting the uncrewed and remotely operated vessels, the research project will help develop autonomous and semi-autonomous ROVs capable of conducting subsea inspection, maintenance and repair tasks which can be monitored onshore whilst remotely deployed and operated from anywhere in the world.
Researchers will specifically focus on developing technologies which allow robots to build more accurate maps of the subsea terrain to better navigate obstacles and targets. The project will also explore how robots autonomously interact with underwater structures, such as grasping or moving objects, whilst being subject to external forces like changing currents or rough seas.
The project will be delivered by researchers from Heriot-Watt University and Imperial College London working within the National Robotarium, the UK’s leading AI and Robotics centre, in collaboration with Fugro and funded by the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council, part of UK Research and Innovation.
The National Robotarium is part of the Data-Driven Innovation initiative, supported by £21 million from the UK Government and £1.4 million from the Scottish Government. The initiative aims to turn Edinburgh into the data capital of Europe and is part of the wider £1.3 billion Edinburgh and South-East Scotland City Region Deal.
“We’re only a generation away from our obligation to deliver on our net zero promises by 2050 and 2045 in Scotland, so can’t afford to let the challenges faced by the offshore renewables sector slow down the construction and operation of essential, green energy assets like wind turbines.
“Remote inspection and repair using robotic systems deployed in the field and controlled from shore is within our grasp. The long-term ambition is for crewless boats to be able to do this autonomously without direct human control based on a predetermined maintenance cycle – critical if we’re to see the widespread adoption of robotics in the rapidly expanding offshore wind sector.
“The National Robotarium’s partnership with Fugro presents an exciting opportunity to develop this next generation of underwater technologies as well as the skills and expertise needed to support the transition to net zero. UNITE has enormous potential to power the UK’s offshore renewable sector and beyond, delivering worldwide economic and environmental impact that can benefit communities around the world.”
Mark Bruce, Global Product Manager – Next Generation ROV Systems at Fugro, said:
“As the expansion and influence of marine robotics stretches ever further across the marine industry, we are committed to leading the industry’s remote and autonomous revolution. Key to this is overcoming the challenges of remote operations by increasing our awareness and autonomy level in the sub-sea environment. It’s an exciting time as we bring more USVs and respective eROVs into the market, working on commercial projects across Europe providing greater agility, safety and sustainability.”
UK Government Minister for Scotland Malcolm Offord said:
“This pioneering research into remote robotic systems will create the next generation of underwater technologies that will reduce carbon emissions, increase productivity and make offshore work safer.
“The UK Government has invested £21 million in the National Robotarium to foster their world-leading research and support high quality jobs, investment and growth. This is part of £2.3 billion for regional projects levelling up right across Scotland.”
Scottish Government Wellbeing Economy Secretary Neil Gray said:
“This innovative research is another example of the valuable work conducted at the National Robotarium, which benefited from Scottish and UK Government support through the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal.
“It recognises the growing and changing requirements of offshore wind businesses and can help boost productivity in an industry which is key to the just transition from fossil fuels and promises to create substantial numbers of well-paid green jobs.
“As outlined in the draft Energy Strategy and Just Transition Plan, delivering on our climate obligations is an absolute priority for this Government – but so too is our unwavering commitment to ensuring the journey to net zero is fair and just for everyone.”