A research unit applying robotics technology to the offshore energy industry has been boosted by a £2.5 million funding injection from UK Research & Innovation (UKRI).

The ORCA Hub was founded in 2017 to support the green energy transition and is led by Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh, alongside partners Imperial College London, Liverpool and Oxford Universities.

It is one of the strategic projects within the National Robotarium.

The Hub’s aim is to enable to offshore energy industry to use robots to safely inspect, maintain and repair platforms, wind turbines, and other infrastructure, guided by human experts on ships or back on shore.

£600,000 of the new funding will be used to help deliver six demonstration projects with industrial partners, including the inspection of wind turbine foundations and the deployment of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) sensors.

The remaining £1.9 million will fund an extension of ORCA Hub’s activities to see if technologies and processes developed by the Hub can be used in other sectors, ranging from construction and urban infrastructure through to decommissioning and waste management.

Yvan Petillot, Professor of Robotics and Autonomous Systems at Heriot-Watt University and Co-Academic Lead of the National Robotarium, has been appointed as the ORCA Hub’s new Director.

He takes over from Professor David Lane, Founding Director of the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics, who will continue to support the Hub as an advisor to its independent steering committee.

Professor Petillot said: “Robots have the potential to carry out inspection and maintenance in hazardous environments, reducing the risks of putting divers into the water in harsh conditions or workers operating at height on wind turbines.

“The international offshore energy industry is undergoing a revolution, adopting aggressive net-zero objectives, and shifting rapidly towards large scale offshore wind energy production.

He continued: “The ORCA Hub has built a community of roboticists and expertise during its initial phase.

“This funding extension aims to accelerate the translation of the research into our existing industry network, working with companies including Wood, EDF and Ross Robotics, while expanding into new sectors by adapting the current research and tackling the novel challenges these sectors bring.”

The National Robotarium is funded separately from the ORCA Hub.

The National Robotarium is supported by £21 million from the UK Government and £1.4 million from the Scottish Government as part of the £1.3 billion Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal - a 15 year investment programme jointly funded by both governments and regional partners. 

Key takeaways:

  • The ORCA Hub is a multimillion-pound programme aimed at addressing the offshore energy industry's vision for a completely autonomous offshore energy field
  • Robotics has the potential to revolutionise industries where humans typically must operate in harsh and dangerous conditions
  • The ORCA Hub is led by the Edinburgh Centre of Robotics (a collaboration between Heriot-Watt University and University of Edinburgh)

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Richard Dawson
Article by Richard Dawson
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