Scottish experts are developing autonomous underwater robots to carry out maintenance and repairs on offshore wind turbines.

The National Robotarium, near Edinburgh, has linked with Fugro, a global geo-data giant, to develop electric remotely operated vehicles that are deployed from uncrewed surface vessels.

The companies are working closely together to explore how the offshore energy sector can benefit from advancing the 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”.

It is claimed 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.

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.

The Herald: The UK has more than 11,000 offshore wind assets around its shores, with thousands more planned by 2050. Each turbine requires up to three maintenance check-ups per year; this figure increases as turbines age.The UK has more than 11,000 offshore wind assets around its shores, with thousands more planned by 2050. Each turbine requires up to three maintenance check-ups per year; this figure increases as turbines age. (Image: National Robotarium)

The pioneering research project will also help develop autonomous and semi-autonomous remotely operated vehicles 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. 

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The project will be delivered by researchers from Heriot-Watt University and Imperial College London working within the National Robotarium, 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 £1.4m from the Scottish Government.

The initiative aims "to turn Edinburgh into the data capital of Europe".

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Professor Yvan Petillot, academic co-lead at the National Robotarium and principal investigator of the UNITE project, said: “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."

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He said: "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, of 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.”

Neil Gray, Scottish Government Wellbeing Economy Secretary 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.”

Malcolm Offord, UK Government Minister for Scotland, 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 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.