ORCA Hub Showcases Fully Autonomous Drone Inspectors

The ORCA Hub, a consortium of five UK universities, has unveiled fully autonomous drones that can inspect offshore energy infrastructure.

The ORCA Hub is led by the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics, a partnership between Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh. The consortium also includes Imperial College London, the University of Oxford and the University of Liverpool.

Unveiling recent results at its third presentation to industry, the ORCA Hub showcased the application of 16 autonomous and semi-autonomous robotic solutions at ORE Catapult in Blyth, near Newcastle, including the fully autonomous drones.

“Our drones are fully autonomous. As well as visually inspecting a turbine for integrity concerns, ours make contact, placing sensors on the infrastructure, or acting as a sensor itself, to assess the health of each asset. Our technology could even deposit repair material for certain types of damage,” Dr Mirko Kovac, director of the aerial robotics laboratory at Imperial College London, said.

“This has far reaching applications including removing the need for humans to abseil down the side of turbines which can be both dangerous and expensive. Our drones could also reduce the number of vessels travelling to and from wind farms, providing the industry with both cost and environmental benefits. The ORCA Hub’s objective is to remove humans from hard to reach, hazardous and dangerous work environments and our demonstration to industry presents the far-reaching potential of this robotic solution.”

Other demonstrations included Limpet, an integrated multi-sensing device designed for deployment in large collectives. Limpet can be used on or around an offshore asset for integrity monitoring and inspection.

Equipped with nine sensing devices and four methods of communication integrated into a single platform, Limpet is said to replace the need for multiple sensors to be used for integrity monitoring on wind turbines. Able to wirelessly communicate with each other, or a human operator, Limpet works subsea or topside and can provide an early warning system for asset inspection and maintenance requirements.

Senior Research Engineer at EDF, Tariq Dawood, said: “Research of this kind is of huge interest to us as one of the UK’s leading renewable companies and we seek to employ the latest technology in our offshore asset inspection procedures. As renewable energy infrastructure grows in both scale and complexity, we will watch closely to determine how this sophisticated technology, including autonomous and semi-autonomous robotics solutions, can be best deployed and we look forward to supporting ORCA Hub’s objectives going forward.”

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