A new £4 million ($5 million) project is set to develop the world’s first fully autonomous robotic inspection and repair solution for offshore wind farms. The robots are expected to save the average wind farm approximately £26 million ($33 million) over the course of its lifetime.
The two-year Innovate UK-funded MIMRee (Multi-Platform Inspection, Maintenance and Repair in Extreme Environments) project brings in expertise from the fields of robotics, non-destructive testing, artificial intelligence, space mission planning, marine and aerial engineering and nanobiotechnology. It aims to prove that offshore wind operations and maintenance missions can be conducted by autonomous vessels, aerial vehicles and crawling robots.
Inspection and repair missions on wind turbine blades are typically performed by rope-access technicians, often working in extreme conditions and during restricted weather windows. The length of turbine downtime, and hence lost energy production, using this approach can be high, while daily use of crew transfer vessels makes up a significant proportion of a wind farm’s operation and maintenance costs.
Eight industry and academic partners will work together on a new system. Plant Integrity will lead the consortium and the Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult will provide offshore wind industry insight, engineering expertise and access to facilities to test and demonstrate the MIMRee system.
Thales’ Halcyon autonomous vessel will play a key role, as will a drone system under development by the University of Bristol’s Dr Tom Richardson, and the six-legged crawling repair robot BladeBUG, invented by entrepreneur Chris Cieslak. The core innovation challenge will be to bring these units into one team capable of planning, communicating, sharing data and working together on a complex chain of tasks.
The University of Manchester’s Dr. Simon Watson will lead development of a system for transporting, deploying and retrieving the blade crawler, and Dr. Sara Bernardini of Royal Holloway University of London will lead creation of the human-machine interface that will allow personnel located onshore to analyze the data transmitted by MIMRee and intervene as necessary.
If successful, autonomous vessels could be initiating and planning missions, and mapping and scanning wind turbine blades upon approach to understand where the robots should be deployed. Onboard drones will take off from the mother ship to conduct visual and hyperspectral imaging inspection of the blades and transport crawling robots on to the blade to effect repairs using a robotic arm for resurfacing the blades (created bespoke by Dr. Sina Sareh’s team at the Royal College of Art Robotics Laboratory). An electronic skin, developed by high-tech start-up Wootzano, will ‘feel’ the surface and collect a deeper level of data on the blade surface structure.
Martin Bourton, Principal Project Leader at Plant Integrity, added: “The moment when an autonomous mother ship and robotic crew sail in UK waters will be a world-first – and likely a game-changer for the offshore, oil and gas and defence industries too. Some of the technologies are more fully-developed, such as the autonomous vessel, but robotics is at a more experimental stage. While the focus is on solving vital problems for the offshore wind industry, we’d expect to see a lot more insights and applications emerging as we test different combinations of mechanics, sensors and robotic intelligence.”
The eight academic and industry partners working on the MIMRee project over the next two years are:
Plant Integrity Ltd
Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult
The University of Bristol
The University of Manchester
Royal Holloway, The University of London
The Royal College of Art