Source: IMechE

Autonomous underwater robots creating live 3D scans of the sea floor could slash inspection and decommissioning costs for offshore energy operators, a company has claimed.

Bristol-based Rovco said a system with integrated artificial intelligence (AI) could lower costs by 80%, after it secured funding from Innovate UK for a potential £1m project to develop the technology.

In the first phase, Rovco will work with the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult to develop equipment and software required to produce live 3D data from “challenging and extreme” underwater environments. The organisations will test the technology at the ORE Catapult’s renewable energy test facility in Blyth, Northumberland.

The second phase will include the development of a “complete 3D vision-based survey solution” using AI, recent advances in camera technology and in-built graphic processing on board small, autonomous robotic vehicles.

The technology could “revolutionise” the way energy companies manage and inspect underwater installations such as wind turbines or oil pipes, Rovco claimed, potentially saving hundreds of millions of pounds per year.

Inspections are vital for decommissioning, which has become an industry in itself in the North Sea since oil prices slumped in 2014. Operators will plug and abandon 1,800 wells over a decade, contributing to a total bill of £17.6bn on the UK Continental Shelf.

Some 3D inspection methods exist but rely on sonar rather than cameras; 2D scanning also exists, but offers less information.

“Compared to traditional visual survey methods, 3D delivers precise measurements and reliable metrics,” said Rovco chief executive and founder Brian Allen. “Combining this with the use of AI to better analyse and understand subsea data enhances decisions and reduces the manpower required, while also speeding up project turnaround times.”

There is “huge” potential to develop clean, low carbon energy from offshore wind, wave and tidal resources around the world, Simon Cheeseman from the ORE Catapult told Professional Engineering.

“Installed global offshore wind capacity is expected to exceed 100GW by 2030 and the current global marine energy market is worth £76bn across 50 countries. The UK is a global leader in offshore renewables – we have more installed offshore wind capacity than anywhere else in the world, and our waters have some of the best marine resources in the world, which we are well placed to exploit.”

Developing, validating and commercialising new technologies and ways of working is “vital” to improving renewables’ efficiency and cost-effectiveness, he added, making them more competitive with other conventional energy sources.

Innovate UK will provide 70% of the funding for phase one of the project, with Rovco providing 30%. The innovation agency is expected to back phase two once technical feasibility has been proven.

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