ORCA Hub Unveils Autonomous Drones for Offshore Energy Industry

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A UK government-backed consortium that includes five leading universities and 35 industrial and innovation partners has unveiled the latest solutions from its research collaboration.

ORCA Hub is combining academic expertise with industry knowhow to find ways to apply robotics in the field of offshore energy. The ORCA Hub’s main challenges to address revolve around inspection, repair, maintenance and certification.

Ultimately, that means removing the need for humans to work in hard to reach and hazardous environments.

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.

The Orca Hub is part of the UK government’s £93m R&D funding for the development of robotics and AI to work in extreme environments.

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ORCA Hub unveils 16 autonomous and semi-autonomous robotic solutions

At an industry presentation today, the ORCA Hub showcased 16 robotic solutions with varying degrees of autonomy.

The event included a demonstration of autonomous drones by Dr Mirko Kovac, director of the aerial robotics laboratory at Imperial College London.

During the presentation, Kovac introduced a flying drone able to attach itself to vertical surfaces, not just to inspect it infrastructure, but to deploy and act as a sensor, or even carry out a repair there and then.

The drone could be deployed on wind farms out at sea.

He said, “Drones are currently used to visually inspect offshore wind turbines, but these inspections are remotely controlled by people on-site 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. 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 wind farms, 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.”

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The flying, sensing, repairing drone was one of several solutions unveiled by ORCA to support wind farms at sea.

Professor David Lane CBE, from Heriot-Watt University and director of the ORCA Hub, said: “The international offshore energy industry faces many challenges, including near-permanent low oil prices and expensive decommissioning commitments from historic infrastructure, particularly in the North Sea.

“The 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. These 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.”

Chris Hill, Operational Performance Director at the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, said: “Robotics, autonomous systems and Artificial Intelligence technologies provide the UK with an unparalleled economic opportunity…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.

“ORCA Hub is leading the way in developing some of these exciting and cutting-edge technologies, and we are delighted to be working alongside them to help identify some of their potential real-world applications in offshore renewable energy.”

Senior Research Engineer at EDF, Tariq Dawood said: “As renewable energy infrastructure grows in both scale and complexity, we will watch closely to determine how this sophisticated technology, including autonomous and semi-autonomous robotics solutions, can be best deployed and we look forward to supporting ORCA Hub’s objectives going forward.”



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