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Creating the (semi) autonomous offshore energy field

14 January 2018
Written by Luca Corradi

The energy industry took an exciting step into the future as research activities for the new ORCA (Offshore Robotics Certification of Assets) Hub kicked off yesterday. At the first All Hands meeting of the Hub, Professor David Lane stated the vision is to create the (semi) autonomous offshore energy field.

The ORCA Hub has been set up to address the ESPRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) challenge of Robotics in extreme environments. With support from 30 Industry partners including the Technology Centre, and it’s led by the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics (a joint venture between Heriot-Watt University and University of Edinburgh) in collaboration with Imperial College, Oxford and Liverpool Universities.

Its mission is to translate cutting-edge science into products and services for the offshore industry, and to make the UK supply chain the most productive in the world. A rightly bold ambition.

The Hub research is organised across four areas:

Sensing and mapping – This is about enabling a robot to sense what is on the offshore asset, both underwater, on the platform, and in places humans cannot easily reach. It is also about the robot being able to localise itself on the asset.

Mobility – Enabling the robot to move, fly, swim around, and to be in control under difficult conditions. Real life, non-structured environments are very different from a lab and the work focuses on dynamic models, planning and control, shared and punctuated autonomy, reactive re-planning, and manipulation.

‘The human in the loop’ – It’s about allowing the people onshore to monitor the robot offshore, and reducing the cognitive load on the person doing this. Low situation awareness and transparency can lead to a reduction in trust, so it’s important to build interfaces that support joint human-machine decision-making. To build this trust, the focus is on clear reporting and monitoring by the human on where the robot is, what it is doing, why it is doing it (explainable artificial intelligence and autonomy), and what does it see and sense (ability to read and explain the environment), and allow for easy planning and re-planning and top-level goal setting.

Robot and asset self-certification – The robot needs to assess and certify the state of the asset it is inspecting, and understand how it changes under a variety of scenarios. The robot itself needs to be certifiable too, able to detect and recover from failure of any of its systems, to avoid being the weak link in the operations.

The research is supported by a wide range of testing facilities to accelerate deployment readiness. The Hub will take advantage of Scotland’s lochs to test underwater robots, in collaboration with other institutions like SAMS (the Scottish Association for Marine Science) and the Underwater Centre in Fort William, and complemented by the various labs of the participating universities.

Clearly the ORCA Hub has a great set of capabilities and leading experts from top UK universities onboard to pursue its ambitious mission. As exciting as all this sounds, and it is indeed exciting, this is a journey. And it is a journey that requires active involvement and participation by the industry to ensure it fulfils its mission.

We need to bridge the gap between academic research and industry projects to accelerate deployment of solutions in the field, an objective very much in line with the Technology Centre’s purpose.

We are actively part of this journey, with our own Rebecca Allison chairing the ‘Industry Leadership & Opportunity Panel’ for the ORCA Hub. We look forward to engaging industry partners, from operators to technology companies, to join the panel and work together to accelerate the autonomous offshore energy field of the future.

To find out more about the Oil & Gas Technology Centre involvement in Robotics, click here.

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