The Burbo Bank Offshore Wind Farm on the River Mersey

Autonomous robot inspectors developed for offshore wind farms

Image credit: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

A team of university scientists have developed fully autonomous robots which are able to inspect wind farms for damage.

Unlike other drones considered for remote service work, these robots do not require a human operator to oversee their activity, and can assess the integrity of offshore wind turbines practically independently.

The collaborative team of scientists behind the devices believe they could help prevent technicians having to undergo the "dangerous and expensive" process of abseiling down the giant offshore turbines in order to carry out what are often routine repairs.

Dr Mirko Kovac, director of the aerial robotics laboratory at Imperial College London, said: "Drones are currently used to visually inspect offshore wind turbines, but these inspections are remotely controlled by people on-site at the offshore location. Should an area of concern be found, technicians are required to carry out further inspection, maintenance or repair, often at great heights and therefore in high-risk environments."

He added: "Our drones are fully autonomous. As well as visually inspecting a turbine for integrity concerns, ours make contact, placing sensors on the infrastructure, or acting as a sensor itself, to assess the health of each asset. Our technology could even deposit repair material for certain types of damage. This has far reaching applications, including removing the need for humans to abseil down the side of turbines which can be both dangerous and expensive."

"Our drones could also reduce the number of vessels travelling to and from wind farms, providing the industry with both cost and environmental benefits."

The technology was developed by the Offshore Robotics for the Certification of Assets (Orca) Hub, a consortium of five universities led by the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics: a partnership between Heriot-Watt University and Edinburgh University. In addition to Imperial College London, the consortium also includes Oxford University and Liverpool University, working with industry to develop the use of robots in renewable energy.

Last month, the first major auction for offshore wind farm space in a decade was launched by the UK government, with the potential to create 7GW of energy facilities. If fully utilised, this would nearly double offshore power output in the UK and represent more than twice the amount of energy that is expected to be generated by the beleaguered - and increasingly expensive - Hinkley Point C nuclear plant.

Earlier this year, the UK’s largest onshore wind farm - located near Glasgow - was hailed as a “national success story” after generating enough power to provide almost 90 per cent of the total annual electricity consumed by households and businesses in Scotland.

In 2016, German airline Lufthansa announced that it had ordered a sizeable fleet of drones from a Chinese company in order to be able to offer new services, including aircraft inspections and wind farm monitoring. The drone fleet was to be managed by Lufthansa Aerial Services.

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