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£36 m funding boost for offshore energy robotics, artificial intelligence research and innovation

Published:  10 November, 2017

A consortium of five universities, working with 31 industrial and innovation partners, will deploy up to £36 m of support to advance robotics and Artificial Intelligence technologies for the inspection, repair, maintenance and certification of offshore energy platforms and assets.

The Edinburgh Centre for Robotics, a partnership between Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh, will lead a consortium that includes Imperial College London, the University of Oxford and the University of Liverpool. The five institutions will work collaboratively under the title of the ‘Offshore Robotics for Certification of Assets’ or ‘ORCA Hub’ to develop robotics and AI technologies for use in extreme and unpredictable environments.

The ORCA Hub will create robot-assisted asset inspection and maintenance technologies that are capable of making autonomous and semi-autonomous decisions and interventions across aerial, topside and marine domains.

Over £14.3 m of funding will come from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) with up to £18 m from 31 industry partners. The university consortium will contribute a further £3.6 m.

Professor David Lane, from Heriot-Watt University, is the director of the ORCA Hub. He said, “The international offshore energy industry faces many challenges, including near-permanent low oil prices, expensive decommissioning commitments of old infrastructure, particularly in the North Sea, and small margins on the traded commodity price per KWh of offshore renewable energy. Coupled to this, the offshore workforce is ageing as the new generation of qualified graduates seek less hazardous onshore opportunities.

“The goal is to develop shore-operated autonomous and semi-autonomous solutions for inspection, maintenance and decommissioning of offshore energy infrastructure using marine, terrestrial and airborne robotic systems.”

The ORCA Hub's activities are therefore designed to lead advancement in key robotics and A.I. technologies that will create a step change in the current practices of offshore inspection, repair and maintenance. Ours will be the largest academic centre in the world for research into offshore asset robotics technology.”

Professor Sethu Vijayakumar from the University of Edinburgh is deputy director of the ORCA Hub. He said, “The UK’s offshore energy sector is currently worth £40 billion and supports 440,000 jobs as well as having a supply chain of an additional £6 billion in goods and services exports. To ensure that the UK’s offshore oil and renewable energy fields remain economically viable, it is essential to develop more productive and agile products and services that UK SMEs, start-ups and the existing supply chain can export internationally.

“This collaborative partnership, involving experts from five leading universities, will develop technologies that can map and survey complex offshore structures using multiple robots that are equipped with distributed, mobile optical and acoustical spatial sensors.”

Elisabeth Proust, Managing Director of Total E&P UK said, “Total is delighted to support this vital research initiative. ORCA is a clear signal that the partnership between universities, industry and government is working. We’re pulling together and generating the ideas that will see the UK continue to lead the development of oil and gas technology worldwide.

“Total is a longstanding champion of autonomous robotic technology and we have a clear track record in its early adoption. We also recognise that truly transformative breakthroughs require cooperation and strong partnership working, which is why we are so pleased to be supporting ORCA.”

Professor Philip Nelson, EPSRC chief executive, said: “These new Robotics Hubs will draw on the country’s research talent to nurture new developments in the field of robotics and provide the foundations on which innovative technologies can be built. The resulting outcomes from this research will allow us to explore environments that are too dangerous for humans to enter without risking injury or ill-health. The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund is helping us achieve a joined up approach to research, discovery and innovation.”

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