offshore wind farm

Autonomous underwater drones used to maintain offshore wind turbines

An underwater drone has been used to autonomously inspect the foundations of an offshore wind farm for the first time.

With the amount of UK offshore infrastructure increasing due to the expansion of wind turbines and oil and gas facilities, the need for frequent inspection and maintenance is greater than ever.

Conventionally, such tasks are performed by remotely operated vehicles (ROV), which are expensive and require support vessels and skilled crew.

The new drone system, developed by researchers from Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt Universities, can perform much of the prior manual work autonomously. It has been tested out on three turbines owned by EDF at the Blyth wind farm off Northumberland.

The system can generate data about the facilities including correct scale detailed 3D models that can be analysed to determine what maintenance work may be needed.

While some personnel are still required for more complex tasks, these can be completed remotely which mitigates much of the human risk. The work can also be performed in harsher conditions which means less downtime or aborted missions.

For the majority of operations, the end goal is to analyse the data to determine if any additional actions are needed.

As well as easier maintenance, the researchers said the drones could help to reduce carbon emissions associated with maintenance operations through greater efficiency and reduction of the time that vessels need to be out at sea.

Maxime Duchet, offshore wind research engineer at EDF, said: “These trials have showcased the ability of autonomous inspection drones to collect high-quality images of offshore turbine structures.

“These images, and the modelling they enable, will greatly enhance our ability to carry out operations and maintenance activities on-site.

“Further tests are needed to estimate the time required to inspect all of the turbine foundations, and to demonstrate the full potential of marine robotic technology.

“However it is clear from these initial results that the technology can ensure safer and faster operations and a reduced carbon footprint.”

Dr Sen Wang, robotics lead at the National Robotarium where the project was developed, said: “This trial demonstrates the enormous potential for underwater robots to autonomously carry out inspection and maintenance of offshore wind turbines, reducing the need and the associated risks of putting personnel into challenging and hazardous environments.

“We can obtain high-quality videos and build an extremely accurate 3D model of the turbine foundations, providing rich information in a more efficient manner for companies working in this sector.”

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