Imagine an offshore energy field that is operated, inspected and maintained from the safety of the shore, that is completely future-proof and that will add £6 billion to the UK’s economy. That is what the establishment of ORCA (Offshore Robotics for Certification of Assets) Hub will create as a result of a dynamic, long-term partnership between academic and industry.

The offshore energy industry faces significant challenges: low oil prices; looming, expensive decommissioning processes; and small margins on the price of offshore renewable energy. Its workforce is ageing, and the new generation of graduates do not want to work in hazardous, offshore spaces.

Professor David Lane, co-director of the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics (ECR), a partnership with the University of Edinburgh, decided academia and business should combine forces to develop, integrate and de-risk offshore technologies to safeguard and maximise the UK’s energy supply, and create an international supply chain, workforce and centre of expertise from Heriot-Watt’s Edinburgh campus.

In July 2017, Professor Lane and team organised a stakeholder workshop to gauge appetite for ORCA Hub. Over 40 industry representatives attended, from membership organisations to robotics firms and giants like Total and Kawasaki.

By day’s end, the offshore industry had identified its main capability challenges and ORCA was given its brief to resolve the following: subsea inspections; autonomous boat support for surveying; unmanned, autonomous decommissioning; environmental monitoring; mobility and locomotion; inspection and maintenance of floating production and storage units, and online inspection for process equipment.

Professor David Lane said: “An unprecedented level of support came from industry. Over 30 businesses committed over £17.5million to establish ORCA, from a competitive industry seldom known for collaboration.

“No individual company will gain a competitive edge from ORCA, the entire industry will be able to guide, access and exploit the technology as it becomes available. Businesses will contribute and share their own expertise and specialist knowledge with academics: an unparalleled level of collaboration within the industry.”

By November 2017, subsequent funding of £14.3m was secured from the EPSRC, and ORCA was operational.

ORCA Hub is a true partnership model. Businesses offer access to facilities, assets and IP to assist ORCA researchers and create progress. Open technology demonstrations will take place every six months, to ensure businesses can adapt and tailor new AI and robotics technology immediately.

ORCA will develop robotics and AI that revolutionises asset integrity management in the offshore sector to enable safer and more efficient working practices and move towards a fully autonomous offshore energy field, operated, inspected and maintained from the shore, with minimal risk to human life.

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