UK offshore robotics center launched

A new research centre focused on robotics for the offshore industry is to be set up in the UK with nearly US$19 million (£14.3 million) UK Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) funding. 

The Offshore Robotics for Certification of Assets (ORCA) will be led by Heriot-Watt University with with project partners the universities of Edinburgh, Oxford and Liverpool and Imperial College London. 

The ORCA Hub will develop robotics and AI (artificial intelligence) technologies for use in extreme and unpredictable environments. The 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. 

Image: Foxiris, one of the Argos competition robots, in action. Photo by Benjamin Valette, from Total.

Be it for assessing inside confined spaces (which require a shut-in for humans to enter), operating in hazardous areas or to simply reduce manning levels, robotics has become high on the agenda for many operators.

Earlier this year, French oil major Total completed its Argos (Autonomous Robot for Gas and Oil Sites) Challenge, in Lacq, France, which saw five teams pitch their robotic creations against a string of tasks on a mock-platform site. Total’s aim was for a robot, able to detect and control leaks, weighing less than 100kg, which can move between floors, and on different types of flooring, from grating and corrugated iron to cement and wet slippery surfaces, under its own power.

Total is not alone in promoting offshore robotics. The Petrobot robotic challenge (OE: April 2016), involving Shell, Chevron and GE Inspection Robotics, looked to reduce the need for manual entry into pressure vessels has led to the forming of the Sprint Robotics Collaborative, based in the Netherlands. Chevron has also been trialing so-called snake-arm robots for vessel entry inspection in the North Sea.

A more subsea-oriented robotics challenge is Shell’s Xprize. It has set a challenge for teams to survey 500sq km of ocean bottom in 24 hours. 

Shell has also been developing Sensabot, for the North Caspian Operating Co. consortium, for use on unmanned islands of the H2S-rich Kashagan development, for faster, more efficient 24-hour response and inspections.

The ORCA hub funding is part of a total of £68 million to be awarded from the ISCF for research and innovation in robotics and artificial intelligence.

Also receiving cash under the ISCF scheme includes £4.3 million for the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to fund five research projects at the National Oceanography Centre (NOC), and the universities of Exeter and Southampton to develop sensors capable of working in the ocean’s extreme conditions. The sensors will be compatible with existing marine robotic vehicles or those in development at NOC, such as the Autosub Long Range (ALR), Boaty McBoatface.

The awards are part of the UK government’s $90 million (£93 million) of funding for the robotics and AI in extreme environments program through the ISCF, which was announced in the Budget of April 2017.

The program aims to develop robotic solutions to make a safer working environment in industries such as off-shore energy, nuclear energy, space and deep mining, increase productivity and open up new cross disciplinary opportunities, not currently available.

Other projects receiving funding include: $21.6 million (£16.5 million) funding following a collaborative R&D competition run by Innovate UK, with winners including more than 70 businesses, 13 universities and 10 research organizations; and $4 million (£3 million) for 17 demonstrator feasibility studies following a separate competition run by Innovate UK. 

NERC's Chief Executive, Professor Duncan Wingham said: “These sensors will help us to better understand our oceans, helping us to manage them sustainably for the future. The projects will develop ambitious new technologies that work in hazardous and extreme environments, maintaining the UK's world-class status in marine robotics.”

The ISCF is a strategic element of the Government’s Industrial Strategy that aims to ensure the UK continues to be one of the best places in the world for science and innovation.

Innovate UK and the Research Councils are taking a leading role in delivering this funding, operating across the country, to ensure the UK secures maximum benefit from science and innovation.


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