Autonomous drones and unmanned boats could be used to maintain UK offshore wind farms for the next five years, experts have told Sky News.
A team of scientists from the University of Bristol and French engineering and science firm Thales are testing technology that will eventually eliminate the need for humans to play the dangerous role.
The process involves AI (artificial intelligence) boats transporting autonomous drones to wind turbines at sea, before they take off and land on turbine blades and make repairs.
Tom Richardson, University of Bristol, who leads the team, said: “The number of turbines we have is growing almost exponentially.
“There are a lot of them there. They’re offshore, they’re in an environment that’s really tough, and we have to be able to fix them in the long run so that they continue to generate electricity for us.
It is believed that the technology could be used by energy companies over the next five to ten years.
The invention is timely – given the recent UK government announcement on wind power.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that offshore wind farms will produce enough electricity to power every household in the country within 10 years.
He wants the UK to become “the world leader” in green energy, he said.
AI boats and drones are tested in Plymouth, which has a dedicated Smart Sound – a space where autonomous maritime technology and AI can be tested openly.
Chris Wardman, who heads Thales’s autonomous maritime department, told Sky News the move was to remove human workers from dangerous roles – not take their jobs.
“It’s really, really important that in this type of business we don’t take over people’s jobs, but what we’re doing is stepping up into people’s roles and making things more efficient.
“We’re going green, using less carbon, and all of these kinds of things can be done with autonomy,” he said.
Another use of the unmanned boat system developed by Thales is cleaning the oceans of plastic waste.
In collaboration with the University of Southampton, the project could see a fleet of 20 to 30 robotic boats spend months in dense areas of plastic waste at sea.
Professor Steve Turnock, who is working on the idea, told Sky News: “We know there are bits of ocean where the plastic comes together, but it’s still spread over a large area, so with these robot vehicles, we can spread them over large areas and use relatively few or no people to operate them together and meet the challenge of removing these plastics from the oceans. “
He said cleaning the oceans by autonomous unmanned boats could be a few years away and people are already testing new systems.
“In five to ten years, I can see this is part of everyday life. Not just in ocean plastics, but in ocean exploration,” he said.
“It’s all about the economy. If you look at the cost of operations at sea, they must be large enough to travel fast enough to get there.
“And then slowly travel through space. All of these people will be on the ship – you will pay them, etc.
“So if you have a small ship, but more of them are working on a larger area all the time, it will be more profitable.”