The Magazine for Underwater Professionals

Jul/Aug 2018


Subsea trencher system 'game-changing' for offshore energy

Northumberland, UK-based subsea specialist Royal IHC’s new Hi-Traq trencher system has the potential to revolutionise the offshore renewable energy industry, according to the Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult, the UK’s leading innovation centre for offshore wind, wave and tidal energy.  

Royal IHC is the latest in the Backing the Gamer Changers series of case studies showcasing pioneering British companies developing solutions that will support growth in the offshore wind, wave and tidal sectors – and bolster the UK supply chain.

Royal IHC has designed Hi-Traq, the first remotely operated subsea trencher designed specifically for offshore wind farms. Hi-Traq has the potential to reduce cable-laying downtime by 50% compared to current technology, shaving millions off development costs.

In 2017, Royal IHC successfully tested the equipment at ORE Catapult’s test and demonstration facility in Blyth.

Ralph Manchester, technical manager at Royal IHC, said: “This is the first machine of its type and we are now very close to commercialisation. We now hope to scale up, creating jobs both here in Northumberland and in the UK supply chain.”

In developing Hi-Traq, Royal IHC has focused on the local supply chain, working with five SMEs.

James Battensby, project manager at ORE Catapult, said: “Royal IHC was part of an EU-funded technology accelerator programme run by ORE Catapult to support companies developing products that will reduce costs in the offshore wind sector and create economic growth.”

Transparent eel-like soft robot can swim silently underwater

An innovative, eel-like robot developed by engineers and marine biologists at the University of California (UC), USA, can swim silently in salt water without an electric motor. Instead, the robot uses artificial muscles filled with water to propel itself. The foot-long (30cm) robot, which is connected to an electronics board that remains on the surface, is also virtually transparent.

The team, which includes researchers from UC San Diego and UC Berkeley, detailed their work in a recent issue of Science Robotics. The researchers say the bot is an important step toward a future when soft robots can swim in the ocean alongside fish and invertebrates without disturbing or harming them. Today, most underwater vehicles designed to observe marine life are rigid and submarine-like and powered by electric motors with noisy propellers.

“Instead of propellers, our robot uses soft artificial muscles to move like an eel underwater without making any sound,” said Caleb Christianson, a PhD student at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego.

One key innovation was using the salt water in which the robot swims to help generate the electrical forces that propel it. The bot is equipped with cables that apply voltage to both the salt water surrounding it and to pouches of water inside of its artificial muscles. The robot’s electronics then deliver negative charges in the water just outside of the robot and positive charges inside of the robot that activate the muscles. The electrical charges cause the muscles to bend, generating the robot’s undulating swimming motion. The charges are located just outside the robot’s surface and carry very little current so they are safe for nearby marine life.

“Our biggest breakthrough was the idea of using the environment as part of our design,” said Michael Tolley, the paper’s corresponding author and a professor of mechanical engineering at the Jacobs School of Engineering. “There will be more steps to creating an efficient, practical, untethered eel robot, but at this point we have proven that it is possible.”

Previously, other research groups had developed robots with similar technology. But to power these robots, engineers were using materials that need to be held in constant tension inside semi-rigid frames. The Science Robotics study shows that the frames are not necessary.

“This is in a way the softest robot to be developed for underwater exploration,” Tolley said.

Next steps include improving the robot’s reliability and its geometry. Researchers need to improve ballast, equipping the robot with weights so that it can dive deeper. For now, engineers have improvised ballast weights with a range of objects, such as magnets. In future work, the researchers envision building a head for their eel robot to house a suite of sensors.





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