Robotics research boosted by further funding injection

Image credit: ORCA Hub

THE use of robots to improve the safety of offshore infrastructure inspection and repair has been boosted by a £2.5 million funding injection from UK Research & Innovation (UKRI).

Founded in 2017 and led by Heriot-Watt and the University of Edinburgh, the ORCA Hub is supporting energy transition and the growth of renewable energy. It is one of the projects within the National Robotarium.

The Hub’s aim is to help the offshore energy industry use robots to safely inspect, maintain and repair platforms, wind turbines, and other infrastructure, guided by humans on ships or back on shore.

£600,000 of the new funding will be used to help deliver six demonstration projects with industrial partners, including the inspection of wind turbine foundations and the deployment of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) sensors.

The remaining £1.9 million will fund an extension of ORCA Hub’s activities to see if technologies and processes developed by the Hub can be used in other sectors, including construction and urban infrastructure.

Yvan Petillot, professor of robotics and autonomous systems at Heriot-Watt University and co-academic lead of the National Robotarium, has been appointed as the ORCA Hub’s new director. He succeeds Professor David Lane, who will remain as an advisor to the Hub’s independent steering committee.

Professor Petillot said, “Robots have the potential to carry out inspection and maintenance in hazardous environments, reducing the risks of putting divers into the water in harsh conditions or workers operating at height on wind turbines. Finding ways to combine the flexibility of autonomous robots with remote human operators has been one of the key strands in my career over the past 20 years. The international offshore energy industry is undergoing a revolution, adopting aggressive net-zero objectives, and shifting rapidly towards large scale offshore wind energy production.

“The long-term industry vision is for a digitised offshore energy field, operated, inspected and maintained from the shore using robots, digital architectures and cloud-based processes to realise this vision. However, the recent pandemic has highlighted a widespread need for remote operations in many other industrial sectors.

“The ORCA Hub has built a community of roboticists and expertise during its initial phase. This funding extension aims to accelerate the translation of the research into our existing industry network, working with companies including Wood, EDF and Ross Robotics, while expanding into new sectors by adapting the current research and tackling the novel challenges these sectors bring.”

During its first project for the ORCA Hub, the Spot robot will be deployed on construction sites, collecting data and measurements in real time to allow parties to build greater understanding of the construction process and identify new efficiencies, potential hazards and quality control measures.

The National Robotarium is supported by £21 million from the UK Government and £1.4 million from the Scottish Government as part of the £1.3 billion Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal. The building, being constructed by Robertson, will open on Heriot-Watt’s Edinburgh campus in 2022.