UNderwater IntervenTion for offshore renewable Energies (UNITE)

Lead Research Organisation: Heriot-Watt University
Department Name: Sch of Engineering and Physical Science


This prosperity partnership project, UNITE, brings Fugro Ltd, a major Tier 1 offshore service provider, together with a world-leading robotics research team from Heriot-Watt University and Imperial College London to address key open research challenges for safe and robust robotic solutions in the offshore renewable sector. It specifically focuses on the development and deployment of perception-enabled, risk-aware underwater intervention techniques, which are critical for the widespread adoption of robotics solutions in this rapidly expanding sector. The vision of the UNITE project is to develop a holistic solution to autonomous and semi-autonomous underwater intervention applied to the maintenance and repair of offshore wind farms, remotely monitored from shore and safely operated worldwide. UNITE's research vision and programme aim at reducing the use of crewed support vessels for operation, keeping offshore turbines more productive with less downtime and more timely and cost-effective maintenance and repair. This will also support the industry to cut costs and carbon footprint while dramatically improving health&safety.

In a world where climate change is increasingly impacting our lives, we need to accelerate the energy transition towards net-zero. The UK has a huge potential for Offshore Wind Energy and the UK government has made this a priority, planning to reach 1TW by 2050. To reach such ambitious targets, you have to imagine 10's of thousands of offshore wind turbines, deployed in some of the harshest environments on earth and able to reliably produce energy for decades. At present, the cost of operation and maintenance of such wind farms is 30% of the overall cost and is performed using manned vessels deployed in extreme environments, hence reducing the operational window they can be deployed, increasing the carbon footprint of operations and risk to the personnel deployed offshore. This will simply not scale when more and more wind farms are built and the availability, environmental impact and cost of the current solutions will no longer make sense. What is required is to replace these large assets by smaller, more environmentally friendly and cost effective robotic solutions, controlled safely from shore by a new generation of pilots, engineers and operators. This is already a reality, at least in advanced demonstrator form, when we are only interested in inspection. Remote drones, surface vessels and underwater systems can be sent to inspect subsea cables, turbines and other subsea assets. In some cases, they can be permanently deployed for long periods of time. However, when more complex tasks requiring intervention (contact and manipulation) are required, the current technology is not ready, especially in cases where the communication link between the robot and shore is intermittent, slow or unreliable. If not solved, this will dramatically impact the adoption of robotics (as existing solutions will still need to be deployed), and potentially stop it in its track, in turn reducing the progress of offshore renewable energy as a viable clean energy source.

New research is needed to endow the remote robotic platforms with the intervention capabilities they require, as well as ensuring that the platforms are safe even when not in direct control of a human. For this to happen, robots (and their sensors) must be able to build an accurate map of the world around them and use this map to navigate around obstacles and towards targets of interest. They need to be able to interact with the structures safely (controlling force of interaction) and grasp objects whilst being subject to potentially significant external disturbances (currents, waves, etc) and coordinate their respective actions (e.g surface vehicle deploying an underwater system). They also need to understand when they might fail and alert an operator on shore to ask for support. This is what the UNITE proposal will tackle.


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