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Why robotics in the offshore Wind sector is great news for Global Britain

BladeBUG being tested on ORE Catapult’s Levenmouth Turbine. Credit: ORE Catapult

Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult

6 min read Partner content

Robotic solutions are proving to be game changers when it comes to the UK's Net Zero and levelling up ambitions.

One of the most remarkable shifts in how the nation powers itself has been the seemingly unstoppable rise in the importance of offshore wind power.

Over the last decade, electricity generated from wind power has increased by an astonishing 715%. Wind power now accounts for around a quarter of UK electricity supply, with the majority of that coming from offshore wind generation.

And that growth is set to continue, with a need for rapid expansion of renewables as part of both our journey to Net-Zero and the UK’s energy security strategy. Experts forecast that, if the UK is to meet its 2050 Net Zero target, the nation’s offshore wind capacity will need to expand more than seven times over. Meanwhile, government’s recent Energy Security Strategy has increased the UK’s target to 50GW of offshore wind by 2030, from a starting position of around 11GW today. Unlocking that growth will require new technologies that make offshore wind farms safe and economical to design, install, and maintain.

One of the factors that will make this possible is the development of new robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) that will help keep the nation’s wind turbines turning. These solutions are emerging from an increasingly important UK robotics sector that is developing and implementing world-leading offshore technologies.

The development of those new technologies has not happened by accident. It has been built on a combination of actions by central government, UK businesses, and critical enablers like the Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult, – the UK’s leading technology innovation and research centre for offshore renewable energy.

ORE Catapult plays a critical role in supporting the growing RAS industry. By working with government, major businesses, SMEs, and the UK’s world-class universities, the Catapult helps identify, nurture and support the new ideas that have the potential to transform the offshore wind sector. In recent years the Catapult has worked with many innovative UK SMEs active in the RAS industry to help support the development, testing and demonstration of their innovations en route to commercialisation. These have included:

  • ‘BladeBUG’, a robotic platform that will be capable of not only blade inspection and repair, but ultrasonic bolt inspection (utilising technology from UK SME EchoBolt Ltd) and lightning protection too;
  • Vaarst, an innovative UK system which is leading the way in 3D Computer Vision and Artificial Intelligence technologies applied subsea, utilising AUVs (Autonomous Underwater Vehicle) and ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicle). Thanks to its revolutionary technology SubSLAM X2 the Bristol-based SMEs cutting-edge subsea robotic system provides offshore wind owner/operators with millimetre accuracy, live true colour-scaled imagery and 3D models, Vaarst plans to create around 70 highly-skilled jobs in manufacturing and operations and could lower the cost of subsea inspections by 80%.

Andrew Jamieson, who leads ORE Catapult, believes that supporting the rapid growth of robotics companies in the offshore renewable energy sector will be a critical factor if the UK is to accelerate its transition to Net Zero.

“The shift to renewables has been a remarkable UK success story,” he tells The House. “But ensuring that the industry continues to grow meet the UK’s future energy needs requires new robotic solutions that allow infrastructure to be safely installed and maintained in deeper waters offshore.”

Science and Innovation Minister, George Freeman MP agrees that supporting UK innovation is key to realising future growth in the industry. He believes that, if we get this right, there are enormous potential opportunities for the UK to take a globally significant role in this critically important sector.

“The UK’s offshore wind Operations and Maintenance industry is world-leading, and is supported by our outstanding research base,” he explains to The House. “The opportunity for growth in this field - a market worth a potential £7.6bn by 2030 - is remarkable.”

Supporting the development of the new robotic solutions that can underpin this continuing growth has now become a major focus of ORE Catapult’s work.

“ORE Catapult is uniquely well placed to support the emerging companies that are focused on providing robotic and automated systems to the industry,” Andrew Jamieson tells The House. “Thanks to our world-leading test, validation, and demonstration facilities we can bring together industry and academia to offer specialist support to robotics companies developing new technologies for the offshore wind industry.”

These solutions will be vital if the industry is to continue to grow. Without them, it will be impossible to support activity in even deeper waters where manual inspection and maintenance become more challenging and costly.

And the benefits of this new technology will be economic as well as environmental. The growing robotics industry is not just transforming the offshore wind sector, - it is also driving new growth in coastal communities that have struggled economically in recent decades.

This economic transformation can be seen in ORE Catapult’s new £3m offshore wind robotics centre in Blyth, its Operations and Maintenance Centre of Excellence in Grimsby, The Marine Energy Engineering Centre of Excellence (MEECE) in Pembroke Dock, and the Levenmouth Demonstration Turbine in Fife. These facilities are providing a live testbed for technology developers, SMEs, and innovators to develop and test new cutting-edge robotic solutions. Around these critical testbeds local communities are starting to witness the emergence of new jobs, training opportunities and  supply chain opportunities, often in some of the most disadvantaged parts of the UK.

For Jamieson, these potential economic benefits must not be overlooked. He also believes that the innovation and technologies being developed for offshore wind could ultimately benefit a range of other sectors and industries.

“The offshore wind solutions of today could well turn out to be the manufacturing, infrastructure, and maintenance solutions across other sectors tomorrow,” he tells us. “We know that robotics technology is critical to a wide range of sectors. Ultimately, those sectors will reap the technological rewards of the investment that we are seeing in offshore wind, as well as sharing the supply chains and skills base that the industry is establishing.”

Science Minister George Freeman agrees that this flourishing sector can deliver a range of benefits for the nation. He believes that ORE Catapult will play a critical role in enabling that to happen.

“The work the Catapults are doing to leverage the UK’s excellent research and development capability will have a big impact on the sector, boosting the expansion of our offshore wind technologies and building on our already significant reputation as a Science Superpower,” he tells us.

The leadership role that the UK is establishing in offshore wind is undoubtedly impressive and is now capturing the attention of politicians and industry leaders alike.

As the nation moves forward on its journey towards net-zero, it is the development of new cutting-edge technologies like robotics and autonomous systems, that will make sure we deliver cleaner, secure forms of domestic energy, create new high-skilled jobs, and support the levelling up agenda by stimulating economic activity in the UK’s coastal communities.

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