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Robotic technologies is key for US offshore wind developments

 

Five seabed leases were granted at the end of last year by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), representing the first-ever offshore wind lease sale on the US west coast and the first-ever US sale to support commercial-scale floating offshore wind energy development.

Safe working protocols, best practices and the most cost effective systems around the site inspection, preconstruction, operation and maintenance phases of offshore wind developments have all been built up substantially around the nearshore windparks of Northern Europe. While a lot of these hard won lessons from the last two decades will carry straight over into the US west coast developments, one area where there is a steeper learning curve ahead is in the subsea requirements.

Potential

Equinor, which secured a two gigawatt lease in the Morro Bay area offshore California, that has the potential to generate enough energy to power approximately 750 000 US homes summed it up with the following statement: ‘About two-thirds of America’s offshore wind energy potential is in deep waters. The narrow outer continental shelf running along the Pacific seaboard, drops down swiftly to 1,000 metres (3,280 feet) or more, opening up for new power opportunities for the west coast in floating offshore wind.’

While floating wind installation costs are currently thought to be about five times those of fixed bottom windfarms, as the technology matures, costs are set to plummet. A recent report by DNV has claimed that technological advancements will drive the levelised cost of energy (LCOE) for floating wind down below $100/MWh by 2025 and under $40/MWh by 2050.  This could potentially lead to an increase in cumulative installed capacity to 264GW by 2050.

Inshore areas are relatively cluttered with shipping traffic, and in many parts of the world the ‘novelty value’ of offshore wind is wearing off, creating challenges for obtaining planning permission for farms anywhere within sight of shorelines. In short, the locations that are physically viable for fixed turbines, in terms of water depth, wind conditions etc. while also being located in areas that are likely to secure permission, are getting used up fast. Plus, contrary to fixed turbines which require heavy lift vessels to install the foundations, transport and assemble the parts on-site, and erect the turbine, depending on the exact turbine technology, floating turbine platforms are often assembled in port and towed to site with the help of tugs and anchor handling vessels, which can bring about significant flexibility in terms of local infrastructure requirements compared with fixed bottom developments.  So floating offshore wind is opening new possibilities for wind power locations and will play a critical role in the transition to a cleaner energy supply, contributing significantly to an increase in offshore wind power.

The deep water, floating wind model, however, somewhat precludes the usage of ‘traditional’ towed arrays to obtain seabed data; a tried and tested methodology that has almost become standard operating procedure in European waters. The North Sea, for example has an average depth of 90m. At these depth ranges from the seabed is mappable by surface towed sensor to an acceptable level of detail for most windfarm pre-construction survey operations. At 1000m depths, as frequently found off the US west coast, it is necessary to get down there and obtain the data from much closer quarters. With this in mind, some might argue that AUVs (Autonomous Underwater Vehicles), and the companies that are most expert at deploying, operating and recovering them are poised to provide the technologies that will best support these new developments.

Largest fleet

With fourteen 6000m rated Kongsberg Hugin AUVs and six 3000m rated Hugins in production for delivery later this year, it is likely that marine technology and data specialist Ocean Infinity is fielding the largest fleet of AUVs outside of the navies of large nation states. The vehicles all have a broad spectrum geophysical sensor package including two types of sidescan sonar, multibeam sub-bottom profilers, magnetometer, digital imaging system, and in some cases also a laser profiler. High endurance batteries in some of the vehicles allow underwater missions of up to four days; a doubling of the standard two day endurance. They also pack environmental sensors recording turbidity, along with optical backscatter, temperature and depth sensors. Having an AUV fleet of this size, with vehicles that can run for four days, down to 6000m, while simultaneously offering this sensor package is an offering that Ocean Infinity believes is currently unavailable elsewhere. The company is also well-served in the line of ROVs, hybrid AUV/ROVs, and autonomous surface vessels from 8m uncrewed survey vessels to lean crewed and uncrewed-capable clean ships up to 78m, soon even larger.

What was already an impressive AUV spread was augmented in 2021 with Ocean Infinity’s acquisition of subsea specialist company MMT, which brought further equipment and personnel expertise. This Swedish company was heavily involved in offshore wind in Northern Europe since the early 1990s and allows the relatively young Ocean Infinity (established 2017) to be able to justifiably claim three decades’ group company experience in data gathering for this market.

It’s not just the hardware that the floating wind power industry will be calling upon in the next decade, it’s the skills to operate with this kit too. As long ago as 2019, Ocean Infinity had built up over 400,000 line kilometres of deep water AUV work, and today’s figure stands well north of the half million kilometre mark.

Back at the birth of the company in 2017, Ocean Infinity launched eight Hugin AUVs, each with an independent mission that surpassed a water depth of 5200 metres. This was the deepest dive undertaken by multiple AUVs commercially known at the time. It was also a first for such a group of Hugin AUVs to simultaneously descend further than 5000 metres. The company went on to perform surveys at five different locations using the multiple AUV fleet which all launched, monitored, and recovered from a 115-meter multi purpose offshore vessel. High profile subsea searches for Malaysian Airlines MH370, and the successful finding of lost vessels including MV Stellar Daisy, and Argentine submarine San Juan, baked in the competencies in multi-vehicle missions, using AUVs along with ROVs and AUV/ROV hybrids, covering large areas of seabed in short timeframes.

AUVs will not have the whole floating wind game sewn up of course. AUVs require forward motion to retain any control, so station keeping, hovering and manipulation of seabed objects are not in their skill set. With these challenges in mind, Ocean Infinity is working with SAAB Seaeye on operations with their Sabretooth ROV/ AUV hybrid vehicle. This combines some of the endurance and speed of an AUV with some of the manoeuvrability, hovering and object interaction competencies of a ROV.

Robot ships

To accommodate the large data requirements of the new floating wind seabed concessions, remote vessel operations and robotic surface vessels will all play key roles. For the US west coast Ocean Infinity’s 78m Armada ships are expected to offer the right package of size, environmental profile and lean crew capabilities.

To say that these vessels boast the latest technologies for conducting deep water data gathering work would be something of an understatement; the first Armada 78 only arrived in Norway – to VARD Søviknes – after its maiden voyage from Vietnam, in January this year, closely followed by a second.

These eight highly advanced, 78-metre vessels will be the first of their kind, enabling Ocean Infinity to perform tech-enabled lean-crewed operations for a safer and greener maritime future. They represent a giant leap forward for the maritime industry. The 78m Armada class ships were designed from the keel up to be completely tech enabled. They were designed from the start to leverage all the benefits of the latest technologies in fuel cell propulsion, low earth orbit satellite communications, AUV deployment systems, electric work class ROVs, seabed drills and back deck equipment.

In partnership with Ocean Infinity, VARD has designed a unique, multi-purpose platform that will allow for onshore remote-controlled, lean-crewed and eventually uncrewed operations.

The vessels use hybrid solutions that are designed to evolve through various stages of future fuels implementation.  In the context of the environmentally highly evolved offshore wind industry this will ensure that they remain at the forefront of low-emission performance to minimize the environmental impact of operations.

Additionally, VARD’s daughter company, Seaonics, is delivering modular launch and recovery systems for the vessels’ moonpools that can be adapted to various marine operations, again in support of Ocean Infinity’s growing work in offshore renewables.

At the moment, the company is already conducting fully manned activities including survey and deep water search, often deploying the fleet of Hugin vehicles from chartered vessels, that will be replaced over the course of this year and next year by the 78m Armada fleet. Following closely on their heels will be a fleet of six 86m ships due to commence build in 2024, again at VARD, with delivery for the first ships due early 2025.

Remote operation
All of these vessels have been built with Ocean Infinity’s Remote Control centres (RCCs) in mind. The first one of these state-of-the-art centres will officially commence live operations in Southampton, UK in summer 2023, although it has been performing test operations for the last year.

The RCC enables, for the first time, anywhere in the world, multiple ships operating in a range of maritime jurisdictions to undertake complex tasks lean crewed or un-crewed, and over the horizon from a shore-based location, via the latest communication technologies.

It is the first Ocean Infinity RCC in an ambitious roll out of similar Centres built in the same mould to manage remote vessel operations all over the world.

In due course, the technology provided by the RCC, and the others like it, along with the corresponding vessel and communications technologies, will enable, in jurisdictions that will allow it, completely uncrewed operations. These are set to include complex operations that could prove critical for the floating wind roll-out such as uncrewed launch and recovery of AUVs in a wide range of sea states.

The next Ocean Infinity RCC, following hot on the heels of Southampton, aims to be one of the largest remote centres in the company’s growing network, able to support dozens of operations personnel and control a large number of vessels and robots, even beyond Ocean Infinity’s own.

The Southampton RCC is equipped with 20 individual control pods, ‘Bridges’, each equipped with a (marine specification) helmsman’s seat designed to deliver peerless situational awareness. Managerial staff such as vessel captains, work on more conventional office type workstations inboard and on a raised dais from where multiple activities and vessels can be overseen. The ethos of close collaboration and duty of care has been built into all design aspects.

A skilled and suitably qualified operator in the RCC could be operating one vessel, or ROV in one ocean one hour, and a different vessel in a different ocean the next. This presents opportunities for customers in all maritime industries to reduce unnecessary, unplanned and costly downtime. For example, if a RCC-managed AUV launch happens to be delayed by bad weather, the RCC-based AUV fleet manager, instead of finding other tasks to perform aboard a loitering ship, can switch to another operation in another ocean.

It is likely to be some time, however before uncrewed robotic or remote-controlled vessels will be navigating, launching and recovering AUVs in US waters due to a challenging legal and regulatory landscape. Many maritime requirements in the US are managed at a per-state level, some even at a per-port level but the sheer area of seabed that will need to be interacted with as we build up floating wind to its full capabilities, means that a larger framework allowing more robot operations, in time must come. Forward-focused companies like Ocean Infinity are banking on having the spread of equipment, skills and experience ready for when it does.

This article is written by Shawntel Johnson, Michael King, Josh Broussard, Ocean Infinity and shared by courtesy of Ocean Infinity – oceaninfinity.com

For more articles about robotic technologies, click here.

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