A productive new partnership between global leaders in offshore wind Ørsted and Scottish innovators Pict Offshore is developing game-changing tech to keep turbine maintenance workers safe, reveals Anthony Harrington

IT is always heartening to see a major company partnering successfully with an innovative new spin-out operation, and helping the spin-out to address a global market.

The Danish green energy company, Ørsted, is the world’s largest developer of offshore wind energy, accounting for just under 30% of the world’s installed offshore wind generation capacity. 

In 2018 it partnered with Pict Offshore, a spin-out from the height safety technology company, Limpet Technology, to create a revolutionary new approach to moving technicians from boats to offshore wind turbine platforms. That technology will now be deployed at Ørsted’s Hornsea Two wind farm. 

Philip Taylor, the managing director of Pict Offshore, based in Inverkeithing, Fife, explains that the company’s ‘Get up Safe’ system (GUS) is designed to both protect technicians and remove the need for arduous ladder climbs to get onto the external platforms of offshore wind turbines. 

“We’re focused on the safety of the personnel whose job it is to maintain wind turbines, and by removing ladders in the process, we’re also cutting the cost of offshore wind structures,” he comments. 

The problem that any maintenance crew attending turbines on an offshore platform faces is that the sea is never still. Far from land, swells in the North Sea can be huge. The current generation of offshore wind farms are fixed-base wind farms and some are more than one hundred kilometres from the coast. Wind turbine towers are fixed into the sea bed and do not move. By way of contrast, a vessel bringing technicians to the turbine is constantly rising and falling with the movement of the sea. 

As Taylor explains, the traditional way of coping with this is for the vessel’s Master to hold the vessel firmly with its nose against the tower of the turbine. However, while this allows the technician to step from the boat to the ladder on the tower, there is a risk to the personnel involved.

“If you have a sudden surprising surge or dip which is outside the normal wave pattern and takes the Master by surprise, there is a risk that technicians could lose their footing. We wanted to find a safe way of carrying out the transfer from the vessel to the wind turbine that eliminated this risk,” he explains. 

The answer lay in having a hoist system connected to a boom structure on the turbine’s external platform. This will then raise the technician from the deck of the vessel to the platform on the turbine.  

However, the tough part of the problem, as Taylor explains, involved solving how to make the hoist cable safe for the technician, while the deck rises and falls. Trying to hook on to a cable that was alternately dropping or rising by an appreciable distance, would itself be dangerous. 

“The technician is wearing a safety harness, but ideally you want the cable hook to be perfectly stable and at the same distance from the deck the whole time, regardless of whether the sea is lifting the boat or dropping the boat,” Taylor says.
This meant that the company had to design software that would allow the hoist to compensate for the movement of the ship. 

By using sensor technology to determine the exact location of the deck in three-dimensional space, the hoist could then raise or lower the cable the exact amount required to keep it at the same level from the deck, making it simple for the technician to attach the cable to the harness. 

The external platforms on offshore wind farms can be anything between eight and fifteen metres above the surface of the sea.  Wind turbine technicians are accustomed to working at heights and all of them undergo intensive ‘working-at-heights’ safety and rescue training.

“The ‘active heave compensation’ system is the real intellectual heart of GUS,” Taylor explains. This is where a lot of the system intelligence is placed. 

"With Ørsted’s help, we have gone through beta tests of the system on their offshore wind farm and we are now in the manufacturing process,” he says. 
Duncan Clark, who heads up Orsted in the UK points out that with any system that involves the safety of personnel, there are rigorous certification processes to go through. 

“We had to demonstrate how the hoist and boom system and the software would respond in any of a number of difficult scenarios. These ranged from impact failure to demanding sea states, as well as looking at what would happen in the event of equipment failure or human error. It was a real learning curve, taking a product from the R&D stage to a finished, commercialised product fit for the arduous conditions that can prevail in the North Sea,” he comments.

“As a renewable energy company that prides itself on taking tangible action to create a world that runs entirely on green energy, we are delighted with the success of our venture with Pict Offshore,” he adds. 

Clark points out that Ørsted is in the construction stage of a major new windfarm that will be around 90 kilometres off the Yorkshire coast. 

“That is a long way offshore, with very serious weather conditions, so we are delighted to have a safe way of getting people onto and off the turbines that we will be placing out there.”

He points out that the joint venture between Pict and Ørsted will ultimately also have a beneficial impact on households across Scotland and the UK. “All of this helps to reduce the overall cost of offshore energy. The active heave compensation system that Pict has developed simplifies the way offshore wind turbine towers are manufactured. Simpler is almost always better and leads to lower costs in manufacturing,” he says.

“Another point is that GUS will allow technicians to safely service wind turbines in a wider range of sea conditions, which again, will help offshore wind farm operators all around the world,” he concludes.

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A triumph of research and development has been brought into reality 

ALL too often the UK has seen promising innovations that could have been of great benefit to one or more industry sectors, failing to make it through into commercialization. 

Duncan Clark, the head of Orsted in the UK, says that helping a new start-up to overcome this ‘valley of death’ between a promising new technology and its realisation, was a big incentive for Orsted deciding to invest in Pict Offshore’s safety system. 

HeraldScotland:

Taking the GUS hoist out of the lab and preparing it for manufacturing at scale was a huge learning curve for Orsted and Pict Offshore

 

“We have always been a strong supporter of the UK offshore supply chain. We first met Philip Taylor, the managing director of Pict Offshore and his team, at a trade show in 2017,” Clark recalls. 

“They had a really interesting idea for getting technicians safely on and off the maintenance platforms of offshore wind turbines. On investigation, it was clear to us that their hoist and boom system would have tremendous appeal not just here in the UK but in many offshore installations around the world.” 

Ørsted bought a 22 percent stake in Pict Offshore and helped the company complete the development of its ‘Get up Safe’ (GUS) system at one of Ørsted’s offshore wind farms. Pict Offshore managing director Philip Taylor commented:

“Developing our ‘active heave’ compensation software for the hoist was a difficult intellectual effort. However, taking our system out of the lab and preparing it for manufacturing at scale was a huge learning curve.  Ørsted’s help and support through this stage was massively important for us.”

“As a businessman and as someone who runs a small, innovative technology company, I have to say that the chance to work with the largest windfarm developer in the world, and a real leader in the field, is such a rare opportunity. 

“We know that our technology can make a huge difference to the economics of offshore wind, and to the safety of the personnel involved. We are working as hard as we can with our supply chain to make this a success,” he comments.

The original work on GUS began back in 2015 inside Pict’s parent company, Limpet Technology, which specialises in height safety equipment. 

“We wanted to understand whether there was actually a real demand for our idea and whether there was a real technology challenge there,” Taylor explains. The company secured a Scottish Enterprise grant which enabled it to do a feasibility study on the idea of a hoist and boom, active heave compensation system for transferring technicians from boats to the maintenance platforms of wind turbines. 

“That study showed that there was a very significant opportunity. So in early 2016 we applied for and got a SMART Innovation Grant which enabled us to launch the R&D programme.”

Taylor and his team then built a simulator with the help of the University of Strathclyde’s Naval Architecture & Marine Engineering department. The simulator mimicked the rise and fall of a ship’s deck and enabled them to test and fine-tune the ‘active heave’ compensation software. 

“Throughout 2017 we went through various revisions of the prototype and we started to share views of the product across social media. We met Ørsted in October 2017. Some of their managers visited us in our workshop in Fife. That led to an agreement for us to attach the prototype onto one of their wind farm turbines to see if we could replicate the performance we were getting on the simulator, under real-world conditions.” 

What followed was a very intensive period where Pict Offshore worked hard at understanding what was required to manufacture a product that could endure and perform under the demanding conditions of the North Sea.  “We found we had a tremendous amount of work still to do. The offshore environment is intensely demanding and there are multitudes of variables to take into account.

There were so many mechanical and manufacturing issues that we had to solve,” he comments.

Ørsted’s Clark points out that the resulting product, the GUS system, is now fully tested and is generating interest from other offshore provinces. “As well as being safer than the traditional ‘step-across-and-climb’, GUS can be used to transfer technicians from almost any transfer vessel. It contributes to a much more efficient and pleasant way of working.

“Around the world, offshore wind is at an extraordinary development moment. Governments in many countries are interested in expanding their use of renewable generation capacity and offshore wind is seen as a great way forward.

Ørsted’s venture with Pict Offshore means that the company already has an order for 165 of its GUS systems, for our Hornsea 2 windfarm. That will stand the company in good stead as it looks to win orders around the world,” he comments. 

Clark points out that by the start of 2020 the UK already had 10GW of offshore wind generation capacity.  The UK government has just announced that it wants to see 40GW of offshore wind capacity installed by 2030. 

“It is totally possible for us to meet this goal by the end of the present decade. And for the UK to meet its goal of becoming a net-zero carbon economy by 2050, it is going to need to have between 70GW and 80GW of offshore wind installed. 

There are already exciting opportunities in the pipeline to deliver this capacity including the forthcoming ScotWind leasing round. That is before we start to consider the global market for offshore wind which is predicted to reach 1,000 GW by 2050. The opportunities for Pict Offshore and the broader offshore wind supply chain are huge,” he comments.

 

This article was brought to you in association with Orsted as part of The Herald's Climate For Change campaign