A £36 million project will develop robots to work in hazardous offshore environments.
Experts said it will limit the need for humans to work in dangerous places for the inspection, repair and maintenance of offshore energy platforms.
The Offshore Robotics for Certification of Assets Hub (ORCA) involves Heriot-Watt University, the University of Edinburgh, Imperial College London, the University of Oxford and the University of Liverpool, as well as dozens of industry bodies.
It is to create “robot-assisted asset inspection and maintenance technologies that are capable of making autonomous and semi-autonomous decisions and interventions across aerial, topside and marine domains”.
Research has found new graduates are looking for safer onshore jobs and the project leaders believe new technology is needed to keep the offshore industry economically viable.
Professor David Lane, director of the ORCA Hub, said: “The international offshore energy industry faces many challenges, including near-permanent low oil prices, expensive decommissioning commitments of old infrastructure, particularly in the North Sea, and small margins on the traded commodity price per KWh of offshore renewable energy.
“Coupled to this, the offshore workforce is ageing as the new generation of qualified graduates seek less hazardous onshore opportunities.
“The goal is to develop shore-operated autonomous and semi-autonomous solutions for inspection, maintenance and decommissioning of offshore energy infrastructure using marine, terrestrial and airborne robotic systems.”
More than £14 million has been provided by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, with a further £18 million from more than 30 industry partners and £3.6 million from the university consortium.
Professor Sethu Vijayakumar, deputy director of the hub, said: “The UK’s offshore energy sector is currently worth £40 billion and supports 440,000 jobs as well as having a supply chain of an additional £6 billion in goods and services exports.
“To ensure that the UK’s offshore oil and renewable energy fields remain economically viable, it is essential to develop more productive and agile products and services that UK SMEs, start-ups and the existing supply chain can export internationally.
“This collaborative partnership, involving experts from five leading universities, will develop technologies that can map and survey complex offshore structures using multiple robots that are equipped with distributed, mobile optical and acoustical spatial sensors.”
Elisabeth Proust, managing director of Total E&P UK, said: “ORCA is a clear signal that the partnership between universities, industry and government is working.
“We’re pulling together and generating the ideas that will see the UK continue to lead the development of oil and gas technology worldwide.
“Total is a longstanding champion of autonomous robotic technology and we have a clear track record in its early adoption.
“We also recognise that truly transformative breakthroughs require cooperation and strong partnership working, which is why we are so pleased to be supporting ORCA.”