How is technology improving health and safety in the offshore wind power industry?

The Renewable Energy sector is growing at a huge pace. 

In 2022, 43% of the UK’s electricity was generated by renewable energy (which includes wind, solar, bioenergy and hydroelectric). 26% of our electricity was from wind power alone. Offshore wind power is the largest growing form of renewable energy. 

To give that figure some context, in 1991, only 2% of the UK’s electricity was produced through renewable energy sources. Now, nearly a quarter of our electricity comes from wind power alone. 

This output is only going to grow. Plans are already underway to increase Offshore wind output from 11GW to 50GW by 2030. Dogger Bank is currently under construction off the east coast of England and, once built, will be the largest wind farm in the world and be capable of producing electricity for 6 million homes. 

And construction has already started on the East Anglia Hub, an enormous wind farm complex off the coast of East Anglia. It is estimated that the farm will produce electricity for 1.2 million homes. 

These are just two of the farms under construction, more will be built and planned. 

But with that increase in infrastructure comes a need for more efficient and cost-effective ways to keep technicians safe. 

Here we give a rundown of the key technologies that are helping keep workers safe when working on offshore wind farms, and in doing so, are fueling the UK’s renewable energy revolution. 

Interested in NDT for the Offshore Wind Farm industry? Find out more

1. Unmanned Aerial Vehicle

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs – drones) are becoming increasingly important in the Offshore Wind Farm industry, as they offer a number of advantages when it comes to health and safety. 

Drones can be used to inspect areas that would normally be inaccessible due to hazardous conditions, eliminating the need for humans to go into these dangerous places. When areas of concern are identified, technicians can be employed to investigate in more detail. This minimises the amount of time technicians are exposed to the elements and using rope access. 

But drones also make visual inspections more cost-effective, as they reduce the number of operators needed to inspect a whole wind farm. 

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2. Remotely Operated Vehicles

A huge section of a wind turbine is underwater. Initially, wind farm companies would employ drivers to inspect the foundations and sonar transponders that are below the surface of the sea. However, this is not without risk to the divers. 

Nowadays, wind farm operators turn to robotics to help them perform visual inspections under the water. Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) are similar to drones in that they can be operated by one technician from the safety of a ship or platform. The visual inspection can be performed without a diver. Any areas that are identified can then be followed up on. 

This technology significantly reduces the time that divers are spending in the water as they are focusing on the areas of concern, rather than inspecting the whole site. thus improving their overall health and safety.  Again, this can also reduce costs, as fewer personnel are required to complete the work. 

Some ROVs can even perform thickness monitoring tests remotely. This can speed up the time required to conduct inspections significantly. 

3. Condition Monitoring

Condition monitoring is the process of continually monitoring the condition of your equipment using sensors and computers. The idea behind this is that by identifying signs of stress early on, maintenance can be used to prevent damage before it occurs. 

Sensors are often used within the Offshore Wind Farm Industry to monitor things like mechanical displacement, erosion of the sea floor (called “scour”) and corrosion. 

By utilising AI-based predictive maintenance, businesses in the Offshore industry can save time and money by detecting potential problems before they arise.

4. Artificial Intelligence

Condition monitoring and preventative maintenance are not the only areas where AI is utilised. AI can be used to detect changes in environmental conditions, like wind speed and wave height, which can help prevent hazardous conditions for personnel at sea. Work can be scheduled around bad weather more accurately, reducing the chance of crew members coming to harm. 

5. Communication

In addition to this, many companies are now investing in communication systems that enable workers to stay connected even when they are far away from shore. This allows personnel to receive updates in real-time while they are out at sea, which helps them make decisions based on accurate information in a timely manner – an invaluable asset during emergencies.

6. Augmented Reality For Remote Diagnostic Support

An area that is still in its infancy at the moment, but has huge potential is Augmented Reality (AR) technology. Users wear special glasses that allow them to see their surroundings but with overlays of digital information. 

In the Offshore Wind Farm industry, AR can provide workers with real-time guidance. By overlaying instructions on top of components and systems, technicians can be guided step-by-step through repairs and solutions. This eliminates the need for workers to refer back and forth between manuals or documents, improving safety by limiting the possibility of errors resulting from misinterpretations of data.

It also allows other operators to weigh in on the situation remotely. For example, several specialists could be involved in performing a task, but only one technician would need to be physically present. This can reduce the number of people being exposed to hazardous environments. 

7. Fully Autonomous Inspections

Still in development, the MIMRee System is the first project hoping to use autonomous systems to perform full-service inspection and repairs in the Offshore Wind Farm industry. It integrates lots of the technologies that we’ve listed above and has the potential to save the industry millions of pounds. 

The system integrates several pieces of technology. It uses a specially designed Unmanned Ariel System (UAS), Inspection, Maintenance and Repair (IMR) robots, Autonomous Surface Vessels (ASV) and an onshore central operating system to perform repairs. 

The central operating system plans and deploys the ASV. The Vessel scans the wind turbine on approach and deploys the UAS – a type of drone – that carries the IMR robot into place. The IMR robot is equipped with NDT inspection instruments and a repair arm, which enables it to conduct inspections and then repairs. The UAS then returns the IMR robot to the vessel. All of this is monitored and controlled by the central operating system. 

Such automation reads like science fiction and the prototypes were only created and tested in 2021. There is still a long way to go for these systems to be widespread throughout the industry. 

You might think that systems such as the MIMRee might reduce the demand for NDT and spell the end of inspection companies in the Offshore Wind Farm industry, but there are some challenges associated with using autonomous systems at sea. 

For instance, they require a reliable source of power and communication to remain operational – sometimes a problem when working offshore. Additionally, their programming must be regularly tested and maintained to ensure that they are performing as designed. They also cannot conduct every repair. MIMRee focuses on blade repairs, but not other parts of the turbine structure. 

Also, while autonomous vessels may reduce the risk of accidents due to human error, they cannot replace the expertise or experience of a human operator who can make decisions based on changing conditions at sea. Experienced technicians have an intuition that machines just cannot replicate and creativity that machines cannot learn. Machines can only operate based on their programming and prior knowledge, they cannot adapt and have moments of inspiration like people can. 

Whilst there is no doubt that Fully Automated Systems will be a huge part of Offshore Wind Farm maintenance and repair in the future, they will never remove the need for human involvement completely.  

Technology: a great tool for improving health and safety at sea

Overall, technology has had a hugely positive impact on health and safety in the renewable energy offshore industry. It has enabled organisations to identify potential hazards more quickly and mitigate them before they become dangerous. Moreover, it has allowed for more efficient operations that reduce risk to staff and increase productivity. 

But as with all technological progress, the biggest driving force has been to make renewable energy more cost-effective to produce. This will definitely affect the NDT industry but does not necessarily signal the death knell that some predict. Machines can never replace humans completely, there will always be a huge role that inspection companies will need to fill.  

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