Underwater robotics: a UK opportunity
Seaborne and underwater robotics for the offshore energy sector could be major opportunity for Britain, according to a new report from Innovate UK.
Marine robotics includes Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs), which are increasingly being teamed with airborne drones for applications such as offshore infrastructure inspection, says the report. Surface robots are also providing environmental services, such as mapping the spread of plastics pollution in our oceans.
Meanwhile, underwater robotics typically includes subsea autonomous or semi-autonomous systems, such as Remotely Operated Underwater Vehicles (ROVs) and Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs), the former tethered to subsea stations or surface vessels, the latter not.
Launched directly or from ships, robots like these have widespread construction, maintenance, and engineering applications in the energy and telecoms sectors. In these scenarios, robots and humans need to access, operate, or repair installations such as undersea pipelines, cables, and valves in hazardous conditions.
This lesser known aspect of the robotics and AI market is among several explored in a report titled USA Robotics & AI in Extreme Environments 2019. Despite the title, the 28-page document sets out the findings of a UK delegation of robotics and AI experts. The Expert Mission visited a number of specialist robotics and AI organisations in California and Texas earlier this year.
That mission was one of an ongoing series to different parts of the world, including the US, Canada, China, Japan, and South Korea, to explore new opportunities for British startups, blue chips, and academic institutions. The Expert Missions initiative is being overseen by Innovate UK under the auspices of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, with all delegates being former recipients of ISCF investment.
So-called extreme environments in sectors such as offshore energy, space, deep mining, and nuclear decommissioning are those that present hazards to human beings. As such, they represent significant commercial opportunities to robotics companies, with technologies developed for one location having strong potential for deployment in others.
They also enable human beings to be taken out of harm’s way, which is one of the aims of Innovate UK’s Robotics for a Safer World Challenge.
One factor that underwater robotics shares with aerospace applications, for example, is delayed or low-data-rate communications. The report says, “Radio waves propagate badly in salt water, because it is an electrical conductor. This means that high-speed/high-definition comms between humans and robots are a challenge on/under seven-tenths of the Earth’s surface – the sea – almost as much as they are in space.
“Beneath the waves, GPS may also not be an option. High-speed acoustic modems or low-frequency communications systems are more reliable than alternatives underwater, but offer lower data rates than terrestrial high-speed connections. Put another way, undersea communications are at the early-90s dial-up modem stage, unless robots are tethered to ships or buoys that have satellite links.
“As a result, human-assistance and semi-autonomous operations will be just as essential to the disruption of maritime sectors as they are in other extreme environments, such as space. At the same time, undersea communications infrastructures for robots will be a major growth area.”
Other aspects of the marine environment are ripe for disruption, it continues. As with functions such as maintenance, transport, logistics, and the supply chain on land, most marine engineering processes are slow, inefficient, resource intensive, and expensive.
This is why some innovators, such as Texas-based startup Houston Mechatronics, are exploring the creation of a new on-demand service-based economy for robotics. The company has developed a transforming robot, Aquanaut, with which it plans to ‘Uberise’ the undersea maintenance market.
In this scenario, the business model is not about selling expensive robots, it’s about the services and convenience that these systems provide – in this case, the turning of an undersea valve or the monitoring of undersea pipelines or cables, which might otherwise require the hiring of expensive ships and divers.
The mission also met The Maritime Alliance (TMA), a non-profit industry association and cluster organiser for the maritime tech community. TMA focuses on building sustainable, science-based ocean and water industries and jobs, and is forging strong links with policymakers in California.
During its meeting with the UK delegation, TMA expressed the opinion that there is a need for a new ‘blue tech’ investment community to bankroll and enable the creation of a vibrant subsea robotics sector.
After the Expert Mission took place in March, the government announced its backing for a multimillion-pound underwater engineering hub in Aberdeen. Bringing together technologies from industry and academia, the planned Global Underwater Engineering Hub will build on UK expertise in subsea robotics, ROVs, and maritime support vessels.
The new hub will join other major UK marine technology centres, such as those in Portsmouth, Southampton, Plymouth, Liverpool, the South West Marine Cluster, and more.
According to government figures, the UK currently has a 40 percent share of the global market in underwater engineering and is in prime position to capitalise on an industry that could be worth more than £100 billion globally by 2035.
The UK’s oil and gas sector already supports around 280,000 jobs, meets almost half of the country’s energy needs, and has contributed £334 billion to the Exchequer, says the report.
Expert Mission delegates also met global subsea engineering provider Oceaneering, which operates a fleet of over 330 undersea robots; oilfield/gas services company, Sclumberger; and the Chevron Energy Technology Company – the engineering investment wing of the oil giant.
Earlier this month, the government announced a new Robotics Growth Partnership to “help unlock the potential of the robotics revolution” in the UK. The Partnership will be led by Paul Clarke, Chief Technology Officer of online supermarket Ocado, and Professor David Lane, Director of the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics, who also leads the ORCA Hub.
Announcing the scheme, Chris Skidmore, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, said that it will “bring together representatives from across industry, academia, and government to develop an action plan to strengthen and develop the partnership, to bring the sector together, and to help push UK RAS [robotics and autonomous systems] forward.”
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