Underwater robot technology pioneered by researchers in Edinburgh will be able to remotely repair and maintain offshore wind turbines – removing the need for hazardous health and safety missions.

Experts at the National Robotarium, part of Heriot-Watt university, are working in conjunction with geo-data specialist Fugro to advance the autonomous technology deployed via the company’s uncrewed surface vessels (USVs).

Supported by UK Research & Innovation (UKRI), the £1.4m Underwater Intervention for Offshore Renewable Energies (UNITE) project aims to improve health and safety for workers by reducing the need for potentially hazardous offshore maintenance missions conducted by crewed support vessels. 

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.

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. 

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. When applied to the whole of the UK’s offshore wind sector, this translates into potentially hundreds of thousands of crewed maintenance missions every year which are costly for business, contribute emissions to the environment and present a safety risk for workers. 

In addition to supporting the uncrewed and remotely operated vessels, the pioneering research project will help develop autonomous and semi-autonomous ROVs 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. 

The project will be delivered by researchers from Heriot-Watt University and Imperial College London working within the National Robotarium, the UK’s leading AI and Robotics centre, 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 £1.4 million from the Scottish Government. The initiative aims to turn Edinburgh into the data capital of Europe and is part of the wider £1.3 billion Edinburgh and South-East Scotland City Region Deal.

Prof. Yvan Petillot is academic co-lead at the National Robotarium and principal investigator of the UNITE project. He said: “We’re only a generation away from our obligation to deliver on our net zero promises by 2050 and 2045 in Scotland, so can’t afford to let the challenges faced by the offshore renewables sector slow down the construction and operation of essential, green energy assets like wind turbines.

“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. 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.”