The £4 million (€4.5 million) multi-platform inspection, maintenance and repair in extreme environments project (Mimree) will last two years, with the aim of developing autonomous vessels, aerial vehicles and crawling robots to carry out operations and maintenance (O&M) for offshore wind farms.
It will feature experts in robotics, non-destructive testing, artificial intelligence, space mission planning, marine and aerial engineering and nanobiotechnology.
Project management firm Plant Integrity will lead the UK-government funded collaboration, while ORE Catapult will provide insights into the industry, engineering expertise and access to facilities where the system can be tested and demonstrated.
Technologies to be tested include an autonomous vessel developed by Thale Group, a drone system developed by the University of Bristol, and an independently designed six-legged crawling repair robot.
A system for transporting, deploying and retrieving the blade-crawling robot will also be developed by the University of Manchester, and a human-machine interface that will allow personnel located onshore to analyse data transmitted will be created by the Royal Holloway University of London.
Martin Boughton, project leader at Plant Integrity, said: "The moment when an autonomous mothership and robotic crew sail in UK waters will be a world-first, and likely a gamechanger for the offshore, oil and gas and defence industries too."
Operations and maintenance work for offshore wind farms is typically carried out by technicians on ropes, often in extreme conditions and during restricted weather windows.
Turbine downtime, and the resulting loss in energy production, reduces revenues for operators, while the use of crew transfer vessels increases costs.
The project partners estimate autonomous offshore wind inspection and repair solutions could save the "average" wind farm about £26 million over the course of its lifetime.
ORE Catapult’s operational performance director Chris Hill added: "Reducing the use of crew transfer vessels is an imperative for the offshore wind industry, as it will positively impact health and safety, help push down the cost and combine the UK’s competitive advantage in operating offshore renewable energy plant with its world-leading robotics sector."
In the future, the project partners hope autonomous vessels will be capable of initiating and planning missions, by mapping and scanning blades upon approach to understand where robots should be deployed.
On-board drones could then take off from the mothership to conduct blade inspections using visual and hyperspectral imaging – from across the electromagnetic spectrum. Meanwhile, crawling robots could be deployed onto the blade to carry out repairs use robotic arms for resurfacing blades.
Project leader Martin Boughton added: "Some of the technologies are more fully developed, such as the autonomous vessel, but robotics is at a more experimental stage.
"While the focus is on solving vital problems for the offshore wind industry, we’d expect to see a lot more insights and applications emerging as we test different combinations of mechanics, sensors and robotic intelligence."