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Huge potential of marine robotics in offshore renewables industry

By Simon Cheeseman, Sector Lead, Wave and Tidal Energy, Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult

One of the biggest and most important areas of opportunity for marine technology businesses lies in helping to reduce the costs associated with offshore renewables developments. This has led to massive worldwide interest in the use of marine robotics to monitor and maintain offshore installations. 

Offshore wind turbines and their support structures are regularly serviced during planned maintenance visits. Typical tasks will 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. These tasks currently require service technicians who often have to access dangerous and challenging areas to perform relatively mundane and repetitive tasks. 

Sending technicians out to offshore wind farms to perform these tasks requires service vessels which are expensive and can be limited by weather windows. In fact, the UK’s Crown Estate has estimated that over 80 percent of the cost of offshore operation and maintenance is accounted for solely by the cost of transporting staff to the sites. 

As the offshore renewables industry grows, arrays are moving further offshore to capture better, more consistent wind resource. For example, Dong Energy’s Hornsea One will be 120km off the Yorkshire coast. This means it will become increasingly costly to recruit sufficient numbers of trained staff who may be required to be offshore for long periods of time. Technicians travelling by Crew Transfer Vessel can on average only endure an hour of sea travel before they get too sick and tired. So now large vessels are being introduced – Flotels, that stay on site and technicians adapt to a week on/week off lifestyle like in the Oil & Gas industries. 

The work will also become more dangerous for the technicians. Most wind turbines currently operate in seas with a maximum depth of 40 metres, so that their support poles can be fixed to the seabed. The future generation of ‘floating’ wind turbines will be able to operate in water depths of up to 700 metres. This will make carrying out manual inspection visits even more expensive and hazardous. In addition, there is the ongoing need to regularly monitor and inspect subsea cabling and infrastructure. 

As a result, marine robotics will play a key role in helping offshore renewables to become more cost competitive. These benefits will apply across a range of marine sectors, such as oil & gas, search & rescue, fisheries protection and even port operations. Different companies around the world are working on technical solutions and there are a number of common themes evident in these projects: 

Autonomous systems. Robots which can be deployed at sea and then operate without the need for human operators; 

Ease of use. Robots which can be monitored by people on shore without the need for a high degree of specialist technical training; 

Flexibility. Machines which can be adapted to carry out a range of tasks, and can be updated as the needs of the industry change; 

Durability. Equipment which can operate reliably in wider weather windows and more turbulent seas, where it will be subjected to massive stresses; 

Dual purpose. Machines that not only inspect and monitor, but can also carry out simple repairs; 

Advanced sensing. Use of a range of technologies to monitor the condition of offshore equipment; 

Coordination. The capability to have fleets of marine robots working together on large scale installations; 

Advanced communications. Robots which can efficiently communicate their data to land-based centres. 

Machine learning. Systems which can use advanced algorithms to predict maintenance issues at a very early stage, before high repair costs are incurred. 

It is exciting that some of the most cutting-edge research and development in this field of marine technology is currently taking place here in the UK. This is creating opportunities for British businesses to become leaders in what will become a multi-billion pound market over the next ten years. Further into the future, marine robotics has the potential to open up the oceans to us in completely new ways.

You can find out more about marine robotics and artificial intelligence and meet with some of the leading industry experts at our Discovery Room Event on Wednesday 22nd November 2017. For full details and to register, see our Events page.

Image: The ASV C-Worker 6 unmanned multi-role vehicle at sea (Photo courtesy of ASV Global)