The Future is Now: the Quest for a Fully-Autonomous Inspection and Repair Solution

In our latest #RUKGOW19 blog, Tony Fong, ORE Catapult’s lead engineer on the MIMRee project, discusses the project’s objectives and the future for autonomous systems in offshore wind O&M.

Tony Fong, ORE Catapult’s lead engineer on the MIMRee project.

Not so long ago, the idea that a fleet of autonomous robots could carry out inspections and repairs on an offshore wind farm would have been an ambitious pipe dream.


As the technology has matured, developments in robotics, control systems and artificial intelligence mean that unmanned maintenance missions are now on the verge of becoming a reality.


At the moment these tasks are carried out by rope-access technicians. Working in extreme conditions and during restricted weather windows, this approach brings health and safety risks and results in lengthy turbine downtime, making it costly as well as risky. Factor in the daily use of crew transfer vessels, and it makes up a significant proportion of a wind farm’s operations and maintenance costs.


As the Catapult’s lead engineer on the £4m Innovate UK-funded Multi-Platform Inspection, Maintenance and Repair in Extreme Environments (MIMRee) project, my job is to guide the development of a robotic system that’s capable of improving the safety and reducing the cost of these operations.


Systems like MIMRee shouldn’t displace the existing sector of traditional blade maintenance technicians. We’re aiming to increase the operational efficiency of blade maintenance overall, allowing for smarter, more targeted deployments of technicians to maximise their value – and ultimately, enabling them to command systems from the safety and comfort of an onshore location.


To do that, we’re pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with robotics and autonomous systems. To deliver the proof of concept, we’re working with a cross-sector consortium, led by Plant Integrity, to develop and demonstrate a world-first solution that can plan, communicate, share data, and work together on a complex chain of tasks.


The combined team has expertise in fields as disparate as marine and aerial engineering, nanobiotechnology, and space inter-planetary mission planning. And the technologies we’re working to develop are incredible. They include an electronic skin, developed by high-tech start-up Wootzano, that “feels” the blade and ensures that the system’s multi-legged crawling robot is securely attached while walking along its surface.


Thales’ Halcyon autonomous surface vessel, a key part of the MIMRee project. (courtesy of Thales)

Thales’ Halcyon autonomous vessel will lead missions, transporting the robotic crew to wind turbines and scanning them on approach while the turbines are still running. Drones developed by the Universities of Bristol and Manchester will conduct more detailed aerial inspections while the blades continue to turn, before deploying a robot repairer to the surface to fix defects.


The Royal College of Art leads on developing the repair capabilities of the blade crawler, designing and adapting a robotic arm based on an existing prototype.


Pulling this diversity of devices into a cohesive team capable of independent planning and collaboration will be the project’s core challenge. Former NASA mission planner Dr Sara Bernardini of Royal Holloway, University of London will lead on the artificial intelligence behind the system, and creation of the interface for remote supervision and control by onshore technicians.


The Catapult is providing the industry insight and engineering expertise to ensure that the MIMRee system is tailored for future offshore wind farms, while our world-leading representative testing and validation facilities will be used to prove and demonstrate the technology.


We want to show that a fully-automated deployment is not only possible as a feat of technology, but also that it can drive improvements in safety, operational performance and costs. It’s estimated that the system could save the average offshore wind farm £26 million over its lifetime. Most importantly, though, our work will improve health and safety performance by taking technicians out of dangerous, far-offshore situations.


Finally, the project is bringing together the UK’s advantage in operating offshore wind farms with its world-leading robotics sector. The opportunity to work on a project that is advancing robotics learning and has the potential to create UK manufacturing benefit is incredible, and we can’t wait to share the results with the industry.


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