Northumberland Robotic Test-Site Receives £3 Million Funding

07-03-2021 |   |  By Sam Brown

Recently, a Northumberland robotics test site to solve issues faced by offshore renewable energy systems has been awarded £3 million in funding by the UK government. What challenges do off-shore energy systems face, what will the testing site do, and how can it help change off-shore energy systems of the future?

What challenges does off-shore energy face?

Offshore energy systems refer to energy systems that are found, unsurprisingly, offshore. Such energy sources are almost always renewable with wind being the most known type. Other forms of offshore energy also include waves and tides, but generally speaking, wind energy is the primary type of offshore energy.

Wind farms offshore have many advantages over land-based wind farms including stronger and more consistent wind found at sea, zero impact on visual landscapes, and the preservation of land that can be used for more productive measures including agriculture and construction. 

However, offshore wind farms come with a whole range of challenges that can cause engineers and investors alike grief. The first challenge faced by offshore wind farms is the additional expense of building out at sea; the turbine structure includes the height of the turbine itself as well as the depth of the ocean at the point it is installed.

The second major challenge faced by offshore wind farms is the logistical challenges of getting power from a structure out at sea to land. Cables have to be laid underwater which causes a whole host of issues in its own right.

The third problem faced by offshore wind farms is the harsh environment caused by the sea; strong winds can batter any structure, salty air causes corrosion, and the flat nature of the sea leaves wind farms exposed to lightning strikes.

These challenges require that wind farms be frequently inspected and monitored, which brings us to the fourth major challenge of wind farms; inspection is difficult and costly. Being out at sea with infrastructure that reaches the seafloor, getting engineers access to such areas is difficult to pose genuine health and safety risks.

Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult to Open Test Facility

Recognising the challenges in monitoring and maintaining offshore energy systems, the UK government has recently awarded Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) £3 million to help create the UK’s first robotic test facility designed for use with offshore systems.

According to ORE, the test facility will help develop, test, and evaluate technologies related to robotic and autonomous systems for monitoring and maintaining offshore energy solutions. The facility will also cover onshore systems that allow for testing power systems on the coast, and the facility will allow companies and universities to develop their solutions.

The location of the test facility, Northumberland, coincides with the north-east of the UK which has strong ties to offshore oil and gas facilities. According to the ORE, Northumberland is the ideal place to create jobs, drive innovation, and encourage the move from non-renewable to renewable energies.

How Automating Inspection and Maintenance will Impact Offshore Systems

The use of robotics, drones, and automated systems will have a major impact on offshore energy systems. While robotic systems may not perform remote maintenance (i.e. repair and replacement of parts), they will certainly reduce the risks faced by engineers by minimising the time needed to be on-site.

Furthermore, robotic systems such as drones can deploy advanced techniques, including stabilisation, which makes them ideal for harsh environments exposed to strong winds and rain. Therefore, observing structural parts of a wind turbine would be easily done from a remote location inland. Images obtained from remotely controlled drones could also be passed through AI systems that can identify structural material weaknesses. 

The remote location of offshore installations makes visiting them expensive and dangerous. Drones and robotic systems can help move those dangers away from site operators and instead provide a  system that can examine a site faster and more efficiently than what could be achieved with a man in a boat.

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By Sam Brown

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