The Magazine for Underwater Professionals
Electric underwater robotic vehicles may provide a key link in the support of future offshore wind energy and aquaculture operations, writes Matt Bates, director of UK-based Saab Seaeye
As the world goes offshore for its food and energy, electric underwater robotic vehicles could be considered a key link between the two.
Locating fish farms and wind farms together is one idea being considered. The thought is that both could benefit from common onshore and offshore resources – such as sharing robotic systems.
Whether or not such synergy proves viable, underwater robotic technology is already providing a vital resource that is helping offshore wind farms meet energy needs, and supporting offshore fish farms as they seek to satisfy the global demand for affordable protein – with the World Bank predicting that by 2030 two-thirds of fish consumed will come from aquaculture.
Although wind farms and fish farms will generally continue as separate enterprises, they nevertheless employ a core range of electric underwater robotic vehicle technology that is common to both industries and is able to work within each sector’s ever-more sophisticated operational and support technologies.
Robotic vehicle technology already plays a vital role in the support of both wind energy and aquaculture operations by having the technological trajectory to cope with their current survey, inspection, maintenance and repair needs, and future developments in both sectors.
Indeed, smart robotic vehicle technology is advancing in many different ways that can help growth in the two sectors.
For instance, the potential exists for long-term remote residency of robotic vehicles offshore, that can be operated by distant telepresence control over 4G or satellite link from onshore locations anywhere in the world.
Intelligent robotics, such as that offered by Saab Seaeye’s iCON intelligent robotic ecosystem, is designed to be adaptable to technological advances and meet the growing sophistication of operations in both the wind energy and aquaculture sectors.
iCON’s ability to adapt to evolving operational developments comes from a building-block structure that makes it easier to configure and re-configure a robotic vehicle.
The concept sees each device on the vehicle as a building-block with its own individual microprocessor, that creates an effective ‘community’ of smart, independently-thinking, hardware and software elements that provide individual operational status and maintenance feedback, along with the control intelligence to ‘manage’ the vehicle whilst the operator concentrates on the task in hand.
Alongside such pioneering technology, operators need robotic vehicles that have both the power and the intelligence to undertake complex and variable missions with the reliability to operate 24 hours a day in challenging conditions amongst strong currents, and remain steady and stable on task for as long as required.
Essentially, operators want robotics that are both progressive yet born from tried and tested, well-supported technology.
Underwater robotics builders aim to satisfy this dichotomy by creating vehicle solutions that draw upon technology long proven in the challenging conditions and task demands such as have existed for decades in the offshore sector.
As nets get larger and go further offshore in the search for sea environments with strong tidal flows for healthier fish production, powerful and reliable robotic systems that can perform a wide range of tasks become ever more important.
The typical range of tasks undertaken by robotic vehicles in aquaculture include on-going mooring inspection, net maintenance, cleaning, water sampling and mort removal.
The aquaculture sector needs a resource that will reduce costs and manning risks whilst allowing them to manage the operation and integrity of the aquaculture ecosystem in extreme weather conditions and strong currents.
Aquaculture operators particularly favour electric robotic systems as they are easy to maintain, with no thruster shaft seals to service or inspect and no oil inside the vehicle.
In the case of wind turbines, they are typically located in shallow-water areas with strong current flows. For this particular situation, a low-profile design of powerful robotic vehicle emerged to cope with the tidal conditions and the need to manoeuvre in tight places.
This sector has a different set of task requirements that include roles such as survey work and assisting with cable installation and maintenance – and even unexploded ordnance location and removal. Powerful, compact electric work vehicles are routinely employed for these roles.
Whatever the range of tasks undertaken, both sectors expect a vehicle to master strong currents and high seas, be highly manoeuvrable in tight spaces and operate in poor visibility. They share a common need for the kind of proven reliability and performance under extreme conditions that only comes from a history of technological excellence.
It should not be forgotten that diving plays an important role in both wind turbine installations and aquaculture. During diving operations, a robotic vehicle adds to diver safety and efficiency and is essential when a mission is too hazardous for divers or where the depth of water and strength of current are too dangerous.
Dive time can be reduced and safety improved by using the vehicle to pinpoint and examine locations of interest before the diver goes down. During the diving operation the vehicle can observe the diver and further reduce dive time by transporting tools and parts back and forth.
Both fish farms and wind farms are year-long, round-the-clock operations ideally suited to future-proof robotics technologies. Advanced remotely operated vehicles, autonomous vehicles and remotely operated resident robotics will increasingly be harnessed to support and help grow both industries.