Repair robots for the offshore wind sector

Online Editor

Chris Cieslak discusses the next evolution for offshore wind O&M

The huge planned increase in offshore wind capacity across the UK, Europe and China has given rise to a considerable growth opportunity for the operations and maintenance market. In less than 10 years the value of global offshore wind O&M is set to reach €10 billion, and with it comes the need for a rapid maturity of the sector.

At present, operations and maintenance remains a ‘person first’ industry, relying heavily on vessels, rope access technicians and labour to carry out a wide range of maintenance and repair activities. But keeping thousands of wind turbines operating at maximum capacity, especially when such arrays are being placed further out to sea and with ever increasing blade sizes, is a task bigger than humans can do alone.

As the entire energy sector digitalises, increases the use of data, and adopts automation it makes sense that robots provide the foundation of the next evolution of O&M tools to ensure repair and maintenance of turbines keeps pace with design and manufacture.

The opportunity to utilise robotics in offshore wind O&M

Historically, the UK has been slow to adopt robotics across all sectors. A recent report from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), Robot Race: The World’s Top 10 automated countries, revealed that the UK is far behind its global counterparts when it comes to integrating robotics.

In onshore wind the development and use of robots to assist with repair and maintenance tasks has been further ahead, in part, due to better physical accessibility and more favourable weather conditions, which makes testing and trials easier. However, robots designed for use onshore don’t easily translate to being suitable for offshore, and it’s in this area that innovation is now progressing at pace.

The North Sea, where most of the UK’s offshore wind farms are located, is one of the most challenging environments in which to operate. To make this process autonomous and improve the safety of personnel, and to free up the resources of those personnel to carry out other tasks represents a huge opportunity for the inspection and repair robotics market.

Additionally, with offshore wind arrays being built further out at sea, and the growth of the floating offshore wind market, operators are facing increasing pressure to provide alternatives to human-only inspection and maintenance. In the future, we could see turbines placed at depths of up to 700m a sharp increase from the 40m we see today. In terms of cost, both financial and time, the only practical option is to do this remotely or autonomously through specialist offshore wind robots.

And it’s not only in new offshore wind construction that opportunities exist. There is an ageing fleet of offshore assets that will need close monitoring to assess whether they are still fit for purpose – a task for which robotic assisted repair and maintenance is ideal. Earlier in 2021 the University of Kent released a study that revealed between 300-1,600 offshore wind turbines constructed in the late 1990s and early 2000s will need to be decommissioned by 2030. However, until that time it’s vital that they continue to operate safely and continue to generate as much power as possible. Deploying a maintenance and repair robot on these older turbines makes sense in terms of cost efficiency but is also valuable in terms of the information the robot is able to gather and transmit back on the state of repair of the blade. This may lead to more informed decision making around the decommission timeline of individual turbines.

Maximising offshore wind generation capacity

If inspection and repair robots could be rapidly deployed by drones and carry out detailed analysis and repairs of any damage to the turbine blade, feeding back images and data to operators not only would this potentially lower maintenance costs, but it also has an effect on the downtime of a turbine, and in turn, the power that turbine can generate. By radically rethinking our approach towards proactive inspection, maintenance and repair, we can positively impact the generational power of offshore wind farms.

If we then consider the scope for the entire process to become autonomous – from unmanned vessels, to drone deployment of robots, to subsea robotics – we improve efficiency right through the O&M chain. A £4 million Innovate UK grant funded project known as MIMRee (Multi-Platform Maintenance, Inspection and Repair in Extreme Environments) is coming to the end of a two-year trial to better map how such a process would and could work.

Robotics are becoming an integral part of many sectors – from food to manufacturing – and the UK, with the second largest offshore wind fleets in the world comprising 2000 wind turbines and power generating capacity of 10GW, is in a prime position to lead on the adoption of robotics and in doing so place the UK at the forefront of the global offshore wind sector.

Chris Cieslak is MD of BladeBug