Robotic technologies in offshore wind
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Robotic technologies in offshore wind

By Yoana Cholteeva 09 Aug 2021

With challenges across the offshore wind sector, we speak to experts to discover how robotics is helping overcome these obstacles.

Robotic technologies in offshore wind
“Probably in five to seven years, we’re going to start to see things like aerial systems working together with unmanned surface or increased surface vessels,” said Alex Louden. Credit: Martin Ruegner, via Westend61

As the need for better capabilities and more predictability in the offshore wind sector is growing, the industry has welcomed its collaboration with robotic technologies.

Robotics and AI come as powerful tools to help unlock human potential, providing assistance and support to inform human decision making, often adding great benefits to the process and allowing it to be more environmentally friendly.

While the robotisation of the wind industry doesn’t come without its challenges, big industry experts such as Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult and GE Renewable Energy have even taken a step towards supporting smaller innovative companies to further encourage the renewable energy acceleration.

How is robotics being used?

Offshore wind turbines and their support structures are regularly serviced during planned maintenance visits. Typical tasks include external and internal inspections, the repair of blades and cleaning inside of towers, the replacement of lubricants for rotating machinery, and the testing of navigation warning and lightning protection systems.

With the robotic industry offering the opportunity for such daily maintenance tasks, currently performed by service technicians in challenging areas, to be conducted from a distance, it means that operators can recover time from relatively mundane and repetitive tasks and work smarter.

Robotics contributes by providing a “hyper enabled” capability to human decision makers by providing new levels of visibility time and interaction with remote systems, which advances operational understanding of these complex systems and environments.

With the UK’s Crown Estate estimating that over 80% of the cost of offshore operation and maintenance is accounted for by the cost of transporting staff to sites, robotics can help reverse this impact.

When offshore wind was first developed in the UK, wind farms were relatively small and closer to shore, so it wasn’t as demanding for workers to visit them on a crude transfer vessel.

Alex Louden, senior technology acceleration manager at the ORE Catapult, says: “For example, Hornsea wind farm being developed by Ørsted is well over 100km from shore, and it covers an area of around 400km2 So that task of operating and maintaining is becoming larger and to me that’s the biggest challenge – there’s more wind turbines to maintain and they’re bigger.

“I guess that’s why robotics has got such a big role to play. And as the industry grows, there’s only going to be more wind farmers requiring operations and maintenance.”

As well as being at a distance, some inspection tasks, such as rope access inspections of blades, are also very expensive to conduct offshore, so these are two areas where robotics can have an immense impact.

“Robotics really enables valuable skill sets in the sector where they can be redeployed and targets where human intervention is really valuable, so robotics can be used in those areas to increase the efficiency of how we carry out operations in the sector as a whole,” Louden says.

In a similar example, by using drones fitted with advanced radar sensing technology, industry experts can identify defects in the turbines as they begin to develop. Instead of using field support vessels to transport turbine inspectors offshore, which can cost approximately £250,000 a day, the use of robot assistants to monitor turbine maintenance can save time, money, and help reduce safety risks.

Making offshore wind more environmentally friendly

Another quite significant advantage that comes with the use of robotics is the opportunity to reduce the use of huge vessels that normally produce a lot of emissions within the sector.

Similarly, as Louden explains, the incorporation of robotics promotes “vessels with a lower energy usage, because they’re smaller systems, or potentially even residence systems, which remain in the wind farm over a period of time so that you’re reducing most of the number of transits to and from sight. And this can lead to a reduction of operational emissions”.

Robotic solutions can also help towards improved asset management capabilities and contribute to extended operational lifetime of offshore wind turbines.

“Today, 95% of wind turbine blades are burnt or put in landfill at their end of life. If we can extend their operational life and incorporate them into a circular economy, then we can create value while further protecting the environment from harmful emissions.”

When it comes to protecting marine life, unlike people, “robots can use non-contact methods of sensing, such as radar and sonar, which allow them to interact with ocean infrastructure and its surrounding environment without causing any disruption or damage”, says David Flynn, professor at the National Robotarium and founder of the Smart Systems Group at Heriot-Watt University, Scotland.

In this respect, low-frequency sonar, a sound-based technology inspired by dolphin signals, makes it possible to inspect structures in the ocean, such as subsea infrastructure, without damaging the surrounding environment.

“We can also help avoid issues like biofouling, where microorganisms, plants, algae, or small animals accumulate on surfaces of cables. A bio-fouled cable can grow heavy, potentially distorting its outer protective layers and decreasing its useful life span. Autonomous underwater vehicles can monitor and clean these cables safely,” Flynn adds.

Ups and downs

While robotics undoubtedly adds a lot of value to operations, they also come with their unique set of challenges and considerations.

For instance, a primary challenge to creating robotic technologies is to ensure that the robots do not represent a cost or risk burden to current operations, so some obstacles linked to adoption relate to run-time safety compliance, reliability, and resilience.

Flynn explains: “The robotics market is predominantly a product-based business model but, for the offshore environment and many other sectors, it’s the continuity of “autonomous service” that delivers the real value to company, consumer, and environment.

“We need to design systems that can cope with knowns and unknowns during operations, and in the event that they do fail, they do so safely and with explainable behaviour that allows operators to understand why.”

And with bigger companies leading the way to increased offshore wind capacity, it is no mean feat for small operators to tap into the market or showcase their potential.

For this reason, ORE Catapult and GE Renewable Energy have partnered and work with smaller innovative companies to help them develop new technologies and commercialise their capabilities.

“We help out in a few key ways. So, we’ve got a lot of technical experts who can provide support across a range of engineering disciplines. We’ve got some cutting-edge facilities that we can use to test and demonstrate new technologies and really validate that performance,” Louden says.

For example, monitoring and analysis company Eleven-I and product development consultants Innvotek are the latest companies that have successfully joined the robotics innovation call, in a series of challenge competitions through GE Renewable Energy and ORE Catapult’s ‘Stay Ashore’ research and development programme, delivered through the Offshore Wind Innovation Hub’s Innovation Exchange, in partnership with KTN.

For example, they have recently invested about £3m with the North of Tyne Combined Authority to try and improve the facilities available there because in some cases it is more challenging to test and validate new robotic technologies, since they are so different to other areas of technology and often have their own sets of needs.

Looking ahead to the future of the industry, Louden says that robotics activity has really increased a lot over the last three or four years: “I think that’s because of this huge opportunity for robotics to have a really large impact within the offshore wind sector.

“But we’re also going to see the integration of different robotic systems being addressed. So, probably in five to seven years, we’re going to start to see things like aerial systems working together with unmanned surface or increased surface vessels, which reduces some of the costs associated with deploying aerial systems.”