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The Robotic Opportunity

Wed, 01 April, 2020

The benefits of spearheading robotics and autonomous systems in offshore wind extend far beyond increased safety and productivity. The Catapult’s Operational Performance Director Chris Hill presents the vision for how the technology can boost coastal communities and the UK manufacturing sector.

Offshore wind has been one of the UK’s biggest industrial successes of recent years. We’ve positioned ourselves as a world leader in offshore renewable energy development and the recent Sector Deal sets out the roadmap for at least another ten years of rapid expansion.

We already enjoy a competitive advantage in operating offshore wind farms, where we have the largest installed capacity in the world. The industry’s ambition under the Deal is to quadruple wind power generation in the next decade, so that at least a third of the UK’s electricity needs are met through offshore wind. The Deal also pledges to increase UK supply chain content in offshore wind farms to 60% and bring about a five-fold increase in exports. 

All of this means that, by 2030, the yearly cost of operating and maintaining the UK’s offshore wind fleet will have increased to around £2bn from around £600m today. In Europe, the USA and China, similarly dramatic increases are expected as installed capacity grows.

The economic opportunities to capitalise on this global expansion, and to further cement the UK’s world-leading position in operating offshore renewable energy plant, are vast – not just for the existing supply chain, but for businesses in other sectors too. That is where I see robotics and autonomous systems playing a vital role. They provide us with one of the best routes to achieving the rapid scale-up of green energy and delivering planet-saving carbon reduction targets, while at the same time reducing household energy bills.

It sounds like an ambitious goal, but I believe it is achievable by embracing new technologies. At present, a large part of the cost of operating and maintaining an offshore wind farm comes from unplanned inspection and repair missions. These are often carried out by technicians, and can be severely impacted by adverse weather conditions. With wind farms being built ever further out to sea, the financial and safety implications of such working practices can only mount.

At the same time, we know that autonomous systems are potentially capable of fulfilling most offshore maintenance tasks, but they are yet to be demonstrated in a full-scale deployment in the UK. The Catapult is working with industry to change that and we expect to be launching fully automated missions using unmanned vessels, drones, and wall-climbing and blade-crawling robots in the not-too-distant future.

Within 10 to 15 years, I can picture an industry where routine inspection and maintenance tasks on offshore wind farms will be mostly conducted by autonomous platforms working with human operators located onshore. The robots will be able to “feel” turbine blade surfaces through electronic skins, listen to fractures and cracks using acoustic sensors, and see using advanced imaging devices. Back on shore, analysts will be able to gain insight from the data gathered to better plan and predict operations and maintenance activities.

Our vision for industry growth will be best served by big industry and small innovators from multiple sectors coming together to tackle technology challenges. I firmly believe that the robotics and autonomous systems drive will result in upskilling and job creation: the systems we have under development will be unable to work alone, even according to the most futuristic predictions. They are firmly designed to work with humans, who can programme, maintain and supervise them, intervening in tasks that are too complex or require a finer judgement than that of a robot. 

That means reskilling our experienced technicians so that their work moves largely onshore, where they can use their expertise for remote deployment of the robotic systems. In order to harness the wealth of data that we expect from the autonomous systems, we’ll also need to recruit and train up data engineers, digital tech developers and analysts.

With much of our manufacturing and operations clustered on the UK’s coastlines, this is good news for coastal communities. If the UK invests wisely in these future technologies, we will see many former fishing villages and ports at the heart of an industry sporting highly-skilled jobs, increased exports and strengthened supply chains.

It’s clear that innovative new products and services will play a vital role in the further development of the UK’s offshore wind industry, but so too will building on our existing competitive advantage and creating a strong, indigenous supply chain. By supporting the development of new technologies, products and services, and supporting companies to expand, create new jobs and export their skills around the world, we can create a thriving offshore wind supply chain that creates benefit for the UK on several fronts.