A robotics company receives funding to expand research into new sectors

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Using robots to make offshore infrastructure inspection and repair safer is moving a step closer following the injection of £2.5 million of further funding.

Founded in 2017 and led by Heriot-Watt and the University of Edinburgh, the ORCA Hub which includes Imperial College London, Liverpool, and Oxford Universities, is supporting energy transition and the growth of renewable energy.

Working with industry partners, the Hub aims to help the offshore energy industry use robots to safely inspect, maintain and repair platforms, wind turbines, and other infrastructure, guided by human experts on ships or back onshore.

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Photo by RawFilm on Unsplash. Engaging with the public has been an important objective with events reaching over 15,000 members of the public.

£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 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 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.

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Photo by Heriot Watt University. The National Robotarium building will open on Heriot-Watt’s Edinburgh campus in 2022.

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.

“Finding ways to combine the flexibility of autonomous robots with remote human operators has been one of the key strands in my career over the past 20 years.

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

“The long-term industry vision is for a digitised offshore energy field, operated, inspected and maintained from the shore using robots, digital architectures and cloud-based processes to realise this vision.

“However, the recent pandemic has highlighted a widespread need for remote operations in many other industrial sectors.”

energy - Research News Scotland
Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash. During its first project for the ORCA Hub, the Spot robot will be deployed on construction sites, collecting data and measurements in real time.

This will allow multiple parties, regardless of location to access and review the data, building a greater understanding of the construction process and allowing companies to identify new efficiencies, potential hazards, and quality control measures.

UK Government Minister for Scotland Iain Stewart said: “Advancements in robotics will be essential to meeting the UK’s ambitious climate targets.

“Robots can help us to reduce waste, safely manage new infrastructure such as solar energy and offshore wind, and better monitor and protect our environment.

“The UK Government is building back better from the pandemic, supporting cutting-edge research across the entire UK and investing £21 million in the National Robotarium as part of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal.”

Simon Reeve, chair of the ORCA Hub’s Independent Steering Committee, said “The Hub’s success to date has been greatly helped by the contributions of a wide range of specialists overseeing its strategic direction.

“An international scientific panel supported the early stages of the Hub, while an industry panel reviews and guides the application of the new technologies.”

Andrew Tyrer, Challenge Director – Robotics, Industrial Strategy Research Fund, said: “The funding is crucial to widening the scope of our work.

“With net-zero ambitions underlying industrial plans in every sector, and the chance to rebuild new industries after the pandemic, robotics, AI and automation are vital ingredients for the future.”