Offshore wind turbine robotic inspection project ends
One of the UK’s most ambitious robotics projects has proven the concept of robotic teams repairing offshore wind farms. This paves the way for human-robot teams in wind farms within 10 years and for wind farms designed for robotic maintenance by 2050 – a scenario that will be critical for the UK to meet its net zero targets.
The £ 4million MIMRee project, funded by Innovate UK, came to an end this month and reflected its willingness to develop an autonomous robotic team to inspect and repair offshore wind farms. Two years after the start of the project, the MIMRee team, comprising academics and leading technology developers, claim to have proven and successfully demonstrated the core technologies at the heart of the concept.
In the MIMRee scenario, an autonomous Thales mothership detects faults in wind farm blades using an on-board inspection system that can scan the structure of wind farm blades while they are still rotating, sometimes at speeds of 200 mph at their ends. The mothership then signals the blades to stop and launches a specially adapted drone that can carry a six-legged “bladed robot” on them to perform the repair.
Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult, which led the project, estimates that within 10 years this scenario will be achievable in offshore wind farms with robots working semi-autonomously (i.e. under the remote supervision of humans and requiring only technicians for offshore intervention when it is essential).
By 2050, such a system might be able to plan its own missions and conduct them autonomously in “wind farms of the future” built to be repaired by resident robots. ORE Catapult estimates that this development will move workers from hazardous environments at sea to onshore control room roles and reduce the cost of energy by 10% (including a 27% reduction in operating expenses).
BladeBUG’s bladed robot climbs a blade of ORE Catapult’s Levenmouth Offshore Demonstration Turbine. Image courtesy of BladeBUG Ltd / Tony Fong.
“This is not just a way for the industry to cut costs, it is essential if the offshore wind industry is to achieve the scale of expansion necessary for Net Zero,” said Ben George, who heads the center. of ORE Catapult (OMCE) operational and maintenance excellence. “Today, conditions at sea mean that human-only missions are subject to safety risks, delays, cancellations and extended turbine downtime. It will not be a feasible way to harness the large offshore power plants of tomorrow that lie in deep water hundreds of kilometers from shore. “
The inspiration for the project was drawn from space exploration, the epitome of an extreme environment. Professor Sara Bernardini, who previously worked on mission planning for space mission operations including NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers program, developed the AI system that controls how MIMRee robots work together and communicate with humans.
“Space provides a good example of humans working with robots. The current Mars exploration program uses a team of robots, from helicopters to rovers, capable of withstanding extreme conditions. Astronauts are selectively deployed where human ingenuity is most needed and the risk to life is lowest. Likewise, future offshore work will concern humans being in the control room, developing and managing robotics and learning the skills necessary to work as a team with them, ”comments Professor Bernardini.
Another crucial technological breakthrough has been to develop the ability of a robot to repair blades. The BladeBUG robot was loaned to the project by BladeBUG Ltd, a London-based start-up that has already performed the world’s first robotic “blade walk” on a working offshore wind turbine.
Thales’s moving blade inspection system scans the blades of ORE Catapult’s Levenmouth offshore demonstration turbine. Image courtesy of Thales UK.
Wootzano Ltd installed its patented electronic skin, which is used in harsh environments such as nuclear dismantling, and applied it to the feet of the crawler robot. The Wootzkin allows robots to navigate around slippery wind turbine blades monitoring slips and preventing falls during repairs.
The Robotics Lab at the Royal College of Art developed the repair module capable of cleaning and covering damaged blades.
Drone technologies have been adapted to take off and land on the autonomous vessel as it moves at high speed while carrying the bladed caterpillar. This phase of the work was led by the University of Bristol, the University of Manchester and Perceptual Robotics.
Ben George concludes: “This project has proven that such a system is possible and can handle extreme environments at sea. We have tested each of its components in real conditions, including on our offshore demonstration turbine off the Scottish coast. . We have also developed a hardware-in-the-loop simulation system that allows individual robots to connect to a simulated environment so that we can refine their team’s behavior before they enter the field. It is very important that these technologies are developed and demonstrated first in the UK – this puts us in pole position for a rapidly growing global export market.
Dr Paul Gosling, Technical Director of Thales UK, said: “We are increasingly seeing technologies around robotics, range sensing and AI providing solutions to undertake activities involving harsh environments using unmanned systems. MIMRee’s work is a perfect example of a UK team of experts using this evolving technology to benefit society and the environment in the future. I am delighted that Thales was able to bring its expertise in the form of the autonomous mothership and camera sensing technology to make this business a success.
The numbers referenced in this article are taken from the “Quantifying the Impact of Robotics in Offshore Wind” report from the Offshore Wind Innovation Hub website.
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