A consortium of universities conducting advanced research into robotics technology for offshore energy infrastructure recently held a technology demonstration, bringing industry and academics together to solve real-world problems
In machine terms, the human body is a complex system of systems, incorporating sensors that provide us with data through vision, touch and sound, and learning and experience-based decision processes that enable us to interact and influence the world around us.
However, in seeking the ultimate robot as a ‘digital twin’ of ourselves, says Lloyd’s register vice president, technology and innovation Simon Reeve, we risk missing an understanding of the intricacies of individual capabilities within our system and how they are applied in different configurations to complete a specific task. In focusing on whether the robot is sufficiently human-like, we can miss relatively simple solutions to improve the safety of a task, the efficiency of a process, or the reliability with which we can repeat an operation with consistent results.
As Mr Reeve notes, breaking down the science-fiction robot into its task-based sub-components reveals that many of its constituent parts are already being deployed in domestic and industrial applications. As the interactions between these subsystems become more complex, so new techniques are emerging in human-robot communication and awareness.
Researchers have for many years looked to the natural world for solutions to design challenges. Bees, for example, use a soft suspension system that adapts to the surface on which they land. A spider limits the degrees of freedom within which it needs to manoeuvre by attaching web links to a fixed surface.
These insights are now being applied on a number of research projects, including projects led by the ORCA Hub, one of a quartet of hubs launched in October 2017 as part of the UK Government’s £93M (US$120M) R&D funding on robotics and artificial intelligence for extreme environments. The largest academic centre in the world for research into robotics technology for offshore energy infrastructure, the ORCA Hub’s aim is to advance robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) technology for inspection, maintenance and repair, and certification of offshore energy platforms and assets.
A demonstration of some of the work undertaken by the ORCA Hub took placed early in October 2019 at the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult in Blyth, Northumberland. The demonstration was aimed at companies interested in being actively involved in research, and in helping to transition it from applied research to commercial products and services that will benefit companies working in the offshore sector.
The meeting included demonstrations of sensing and mapping, planning, control and manipulation, human-robot interaction and robot and asset self-certification. It included autonomous legged robot mapping and reactive motion planning with the ‘ANYmal quadruped,’ for inspection and monitoring of assets; on-surface inspection using drones; underwater acoustic sensor networks for remote monitoring of subsea assets and marine environment; ‘smart’ underwater vision, including 3D mapping, object modelling and detection; and using ‘limpet sensor nodes’ to monitor offshore structures.
The ORCA Hub is led by the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics, a partnership between Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh. The consortium also includes Imperial College London, the University of Oxford and the University of Liverpool. Unveiling recent results at its third presentation to industry, the ORCA Hub showcased the application of 16 autonomous and semi-autonomous robotic solutions at ORE Catapult in Blyth, near Newcastle.
The event included a demonstration of autonomous drones by Dr Mirko Kovac, director of the aerial robotics laboratory at Imperial College London. He explained that, although drones are already being used to visually inspect offshore wind turbines, these inspections are remotely controlled by people onsite at the offshore location. Should an area of concern be found, technicians are required to carry out further inspection, maintenance or repair, often at great heights and therefore in high-risk environments.
“Our drones are fully autonomous,” Dr Kovac said. “As well as visually inspecting a turbine for integrity concerns, ours make contact, placing sensors on the infrastructure, or acting as a sensor itself, to assess the health of each asset. Our technology could even deposit repair material for certain types of damage.
“This has far-reaching applications including removing the need for humans to abseil down the side of turbines which can be both dangerous and expensive. Our drones could also reduce the number of vessels travelling to and from windfarms, providing the industry with both cost and environmental benefits. The ORCA Hub’s objective is to remove humans from hard-to-reach, hazardous and dangerous work environments and our demonstration to industry presents the far-reaching potential of this robotic solution.”
The Limpet is a cost-effective, integrated multi-sensing device designed for deployment in large-scale ‘collectives.’ It can be used on or around an offshore asset for integrity monitoring and inspection.
Equipped with nine sensing devices and four methods of communication integrated into a single, robust and compact platform, Limpet replaces the need for multiple sensors to be used for integrity monitoring on wind turbines. Able to wirelessly communicate with each other, or a human operator, Limpet works subsea or topside and can provide an early warning system for asset inspection and maintenance requirements.
ORCA Hub director Professor David Lane, who works at Heriot-Watt University, said, “Events of this type are designed to bridge the gap between industry and academia to accelerate the impact of university research. By using the facilities at ORE Catapult, we have taken the results of our latest research out of a laboratory environment to allow industry to see its application in their world.
“ORCA Hub is providing game-changing, remote solutions that can be easily integrated into existing and future assets and sensors for both the renewables sector and traditional industries like oil and gas extraction. The demonstrations are an opportunity to further test and adapt ORCA Hub technologies in line with industry objectives. Helping the UK to export agile products and services internationally will ensure our energy sector remains not just economically viable but globally competitive as technology becomes increasingly important in safeguarding humans from hazardous work environments.”
Apart from helping to reduce the cost of offshore wind energy and making operations offshore safer, robotics and AI have other potential benefits. Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult operational performance director Chris Hill said robotics, autonomous systems and AI “provide an unparalleled economic opportunity.”
“Using these technologies to enhance our position in operating and maintaining offshore renewable energy facilities is a key focus for ORE Catapult, and will enable our sector to continue to grow to become the backbone of the UK’s energy supply – reducing the cost of electricity for the UK consumer, improving health and safety offshore and contributing to the global fight against climate change,” Mr Hill said.
Real-world applications of the types of technology being developed in the ORCA Hub and demonstrated at the ORE Catapult in October are already attracting the interest of energy companies active in the offshore wind sector, as EDF senior research engineer Tariq Dawood confirmed.
“Research of this kind is of huge interest to us. We always seek to employ the latest technology in our offshore asset inspection procedures. As renewable energy infrastructure grows in scale and complexity, we will watch closely to determine how this technology – including autonomous and semi-autonomous robotic solutions – can be best deployed, and we look forward to supporting ORCA Hub’s objectives going forward.”