Undersea robotics aid offshore wind markets

For the offshore wind industry, robots and autonomous system capabilities are evolving at a breathtaking pace. In the coming years, we will see remote-controlled robots being deployed into choppy seas to conduct operations and maintenance for wind turbines. These technologies create a new way of working that is safer, cleaner and more scalable for the growing offshore wind market, which is set to see a staggering increase of around 30,000 offshore wind turbines globally by 2030.

Lee Wilson

As the offshore wind market expands, operations will be pushed further offshore and into ever deeper waters. Sending humans into these hazardous conditions where work would be intermittently restricted to brief weather windows is no longer sustainable. Each time a human crew is deployed offshore for simple O&M tasks, as much as 500 tonnes of CO2 is emitted by today’s diesel-powered vessels.

Recent research from the Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult, the UK’s leading innovation and research centre for offshore renewable energy , found that the offshore wind O&M market is expected to increase by £22 billion between 2030 and 2050, with robotics accounting for at least £8.4 billion of that total.

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The pivot to all-electric

The founders of HonuWorx understood the traditional model for subsea robotics operations could not be sustainably scaled to underpin the continuing growth of blue economy sectors like offshore wind. Research by ORE Catapult supports this, highlighting that a basic 21-day inspection mission may run up to £1.5m, an expense almost entirely driven by the cost of today’s diesel-powered carbon-emitting vessels.

HonuWorx envisioned a future where subsea robots would instead be deployed from an all-electric, autonomous mothership, an approach that would remove these significant financial and environmental costs. Harnessing their expertise in engineering and autonomous underwater systems, the company joined forces with ORE Catapult, as part of an Innovate UK-funded project, to demonstrate their initial concepts to address the barriers of mass subsea robotics adoption in offshore wind.

Reducing reliance on large vessels - progressively

HonuWorx is starting its assault on large vessels with ‘Ridley’ - a towable mothership designed to deploy large robotic systems. Ridley can be paired with a much smaller vessel, significantly reducing cost and emissions. With support from Innovate UK, the collaborative Ridley project developed a scalable and flexible architecture that can now be adapted by industry to suit a wide range of subsea robotic forms and functions.

But as the offshore wind market continues to grow, solutions must advance with pace, which is why HonuWorx has plans in place for an advanced mothership, which removes the vessel dependency entirely.

‘Loggerhead’ will provide a mobile power and communication hub for other subsea robots using satellite, 4G, 5G, special communications and control software. This advanced mothership stays subsea as it navigates to offshore worksites to deploy its robotic workers. The all-electric approach uses variable levels of autonomy by periodically connecting to shore-based networks and crews using a communications buoy to share data and seek instructions.

The Loggerhead concept has been highlighted by ORE Catapult as one that promises to resolve the remaining barriers to the adoption of subsea robotics in the offshore wind industry in terms of cost, carbon footprint, battery life at sea and digital connectivity.

The project is one of many innovative collaborations being supported by ORE Catapult, with several eventually demonstrating at the organisation's world-class turbine test facility in Levenmouth, Fife. The organisation’s robotics programme propels innovators like HonuWorx from concept to prototype, as well as showcasing the benefits of the latest robotics technology to future investors and end-users.

Accelerating the use of robotics for the sector

Witnessing many of subsea robotics’ successes and failures, HonuWorx’s expert team brings together decades of offshore energy and defence experience to address the challenges of the future. With a UK/US trans-Atlantic footprint, they plan on supporting cross-sector initiatives for achieving net-zero with their disruptive concepts.

As the offshore energy sector transitions, robotics will be vital in keeping emissions low while enabling offshore wind farms to deliver sustainable energy. As uncovered by ORE Catapult in its latest round of research, the opportunity for robotics in the UK is significant – across the supply chain, we can create jobs, upskill our energy workforce, build export potential and add value to our economy.

With HonuWorx, the offshore energy sector can tackle the three main challenges around cost reduction, safety improvement and operational integration to ensure decades of continued growth for the sector.

Lee Wilson, Co-founder & CEO and Lucas Wissmann, Co-Founder & Commerical Director, HonuWorx

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