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Robotic maintenance crew 'could cut downtime for huge offshore turbines'

Joseph Flaig

The BladeBug robot, part of the Mimree project (Credit: TWI/ BladeBug)
The BladeBug robot, part of the Mimree project (Credit: TWI/ BladeBug)

Offshore wind-turbine maintenance is a monumental challenge – and it is getting bigger.

“There are thousands out there already offshore and there’s predicted to be thousands more,” says Tony Fong, engineering manager at the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult. “The turbines are going further offshore, which makes the whole maintenance aspect a lot more difficult.”

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Inclement weather, costly downtime and daily use of crew transfer vessels all add up to a tricky and expensive task. The solution, according to a consortium of eight industry and academic partners, could be fully robotic. Funded by Innovate UK, the £4m Mimree (Multi-Platform Inspection, Maintenance and Repair in Extreme Environments) project aims to combine robotics, non-destructive testing, AI, space mission expertise, marine and aerial engineering and ‘nanobiotechnology’. 

Using the Catapult’s insight and expertise, the two-year project will put a drone system from the University of Bristol and a six-legged crawling repair robot called BladeBug onboard Thales’s autonomous Halcyon boat. The ‘mothership’ will sail out to windfarms where the drones will take off, using high-definition cameras for visual turbine inspection. The BladeBug bots will then crawl across turbine blades, using hyperspectral imaging and an electronic ‘skin’ to identify faults before using a robotic arm to repair them. 

Next generation

Reducing downtime “is a big factor for new offshore wind turbines,” says Fong. “These new turbines are getting larger in capacity, so we’re talking about 10MW in future – or greater – and, if you shut that down for half a day for maintenance, that creates a lot more of a problem than the current turbine generation.”

Mimree technology or similar systems could reduce downtime and cut the number of crew transfers to turbines, in turn encouraging operators to build more ambitious installations – facilitating the industry growth which is called for in the fight to decarbonise energy generation. 

Replacing humans with a robot team could raise the issue of job losses, but Fong claims Mimree would help the sector prepare for a skills shortage. Workers might transfer from turbine inspection to robot production and maintenance.

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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