The rise of robotics in renewables

Blue Essence USV in Rosyth

Many of today’s advanced robotic technologies were seen as nothing more than a fantasy just a few years ago. However, across the globe, brilliant minds have been working to change the world as we know it through technology, and what was once seemingly impossible has rapidly become a reality with a near-vertical upward learning curve. And while many sectors are still taking small steps, one industry is seriously investing and implementing these technologies as the benefits become clear – renewables.

With the world’s attention strongly focused on using innovative technologies to save the planet, the industry is stepping up. In fact, on-demand inspections of remote infrastructure anywhere in the world, real-time data streaming of coastal areas, live augmented-reality (AR) monitoring, and modeling of severe weather anomalies are all now in use and helping the advancement of the sector.

These solutions are delivered through the latest robotic innovations, coming in a number of shapes and sizes – from drones in the sky to subsea drones deployed from uncrewed surface vessels (USVs). Critical infrastructure, like offshore wind farms, can now be monitored and maintained through remotely piloted robots with different levels of autonomy, carrying out beyond-line-of-site operations to save time, money, energy expenditure and, crucially, eliminate the risk of sending employees into extreme environments. The robots in the air, on the ground, and underwater are impressive pieces of tech in their own right, but these are backed up by a whole support system that makes up the complex machine and data control puzzle. All of this together will deliver a future of autonomous solutions that will lead the drive towards a safe and liveable world.

Robotics in action

A great example of the rising use of robotics to improve operational efficiency is the emergence of USVs. Regular inspection of key infrastructure and the environment is essential to ensure the uptime of wind turbines to maximize energy output. These vessels can be controlled from onshore locations, known as remote operations centers (ROCs), to carry out tasks that previously required a crew out at sea.

The ability to send vessels out at sea without the need for a crew has some significant benefits for the wider maritime industry. Of course, reducing the need for personnel to travel offshore into potentially hazardous environments eliminates any risks posed to health and safety. Remote control centers allow workers to concentrate on complex data management tasks from their safe environment. The implementation of cloud-based data acquisition, processing, and delivery means that the remote solution does not come at a sacrifice either. In fact, with staff in the ROCs, data analysis and interpretation can be made immediately rather than waiting until they are back onshore.

And there are significant environmental benefits too. USVs are being designed to be smaller and more compact than traditional vessels, as they don’t need to fit a crew inside, which means they require less energy to power them. Hybrid diesel-electric engines have been introduced, reducing carbon dioxide emissions and allowing vessels to operate further offshore with higher endurance, increasing the operational window. The search for greener propulsion systems has also taken off, intending to replace carbon fuels for good.

The ecosystem behind the robots

While robots grab the attention, they are just one part of a much wider ecosystem – they have to be strategically deployed across the globe to provide rapid access to critical infrastructure. There are a number of logistical obstacles that need to be navigated to ensure the devices are secure and ready for deployment on a remote mission.

These are complex, beyond-line-of-site operations, so whatever shape the robot has, a drone in the air or underwater, high-bandwidth communication, situational awareness, and ability to autonomously respond accordingly is vital. Even more so for multiple robots operating in a ‘swarm’ scenario, a shared artificial intelligence (AI) ‘brain’ is required. In simple terms, this implementation means they all consciously operate in a single digital twin environment, enabling a high level of autonomy and mission planning. They are programmed to self-diagnose and protect against cyber-security attacks.

Data from these robots can be seamlessly integrated in real-time into an agnostic data acquisition system that is made available globally to a team of experts who can quickly analyze and interpret this data and take on-the-moment decisions.

Stepping into the future of automation

Of course, any individual project has different environments and goals and therefore requires different robotic technologies applications. And while this means the type of robotics deployed will vary from project to project, the ecosystem behind it remains consistent, following a modular software-hardware as a service architecture. A network of ROCs ensures full interoperability to allow for business continuity too.

This means that talented teams of experts, who previously may have had their time occupied by time-consuming logistical tasks, can seamlessly plugin and get to work on real-time data from a reliable base of control, the ROC’s. The future of robotics in sectors as important and relevant as renewable energy is ultimately not solely focused on the technology itself. Instead, it is about how those advancements are coupled with human ingenuity and integrated fluidly. Human and robotic collaboration is the key to future innovation.

A good example of this is the recent release of an uncrewed surface vessel (USV) deploying subsea drones, known as remotely operated vehicles (ROV), that can execute subsea inspection work to assets and collect seabed data, all remotely controlled from a ROC.

It’s stunning to see the progress made in this area in such a short space of time. This is just the beginning, though. The robotic revolution is set to grow exponentially in the next decade, meaning greater benefits for the industry, those within it, and the environment.

About the author:

Peter LooijenPeter Looijen is the Innovations Director at Fugro, the world’s leading Geo-data specialist, collecting and analyzing detailed data about the Earth and its structures. They unlock insights from Geo-data through integrated data acquisition, analysis, and help their clients design, build, and operate their assets safely, sustainably, and efficiently.