Edinburgh's Orca Hub secures £2.5m to power up robotics research

Edinburgh’s pioneering Orca Hub can accelerate its mission to make offshore energy repairs safer after securing £2.5 million of further funding to expand robotics research into new sectors.

Thursday, 17th June 2021, 4:55 am

The Hub, which was founded in 2017 and is led by Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh is one of the strategic projects within the National Robotarium, whose building will open in the Scottish capital in 2022.

The Orca Hub has secured the cash boost from UK Research & Innovation, with £600,000 of the sum to be used to help deliver six demonstration projects with industrial partners, including the inspection of wind turbine foundations and the deployment of Industrial Internet of Things sensors.

The remainder will fund an extension of Orca Hub’s activities to see if the technologies and processes it develops can be used in other sectors, ranging from construction and urban infrastructure through to decommissioning and waste-management.

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Since the Orca Hub was launched, its successes have included autonomous drones that can inspect offshore turbines. Picture: Orca Hub.

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Yvan Petillot, professor of robotics and autonomous systems at Heriot-Watt and co-academic lead of the National Robotarium, has been appointed Orca Hub’s new director.

He said: “The international offshore energy industry is undergoing a revolution, adopting aggressive net-zero objectives, and shifting rapidly towards large-scale offshore wind-energy production.

“The long-term industry vision is for a digitised offshore energy field, operated, inspected and maintained from the shore using robots, digital architectures and cloud-based processes to realise this vision. However, the recent pandemic has highlighted a widespread need for remote operations in many other industrial sectors.

“The Orca Hub has built a community of roboticists and expertise during its initial phase. This funding extension aims to accelerate the translation of the research into our existing industry network, working with companies including Wood, EDF and Ross Robotics, while expanding into new sectors by adapting the current research and tackling the novel challenges these [industries] bring.”

During its first project for the Orca Hub, the Spot robot will be deployed on construction sites, collecting data and measurements in real time. This is expected to allow multiple parties, regardless of location, to access and review the data.

Crucial

Andrew Tyrer, challenge director – robotics at the Industrial Strategy Research Fund, said: “The funding is crucial to widening the scope of our work. With net-zero ambitions underlying industrial plans in every sector, and the chance to rebuild new industries after the pandemic, robotics, [artificial intelligence] and automation are vital ingredients for the future.”

Professor David Lane, founding director of the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics, also commented: “Since the Orca Hub was launched, its successes have been wide-ranging, from launching tech that can help humans and robots to speak the same language to autonomous drones that can inspect offshore turbines.

“However, research of this type can only have impact if it is driven by and addresses specific industry needs. Significant industry engagement has been achieved since 2017 with 68 individual research projects, PhD sponsorships, user engagements, and supply of equipment, hardware, software, data and asset samples taking place with a further 16 projects currently in discussion or pending approval with an estimated value of over £6m.

"We’ve spun out a company and two more are in the process of spin-out, alongside two patent applications enabling developments to be licensed to companies.”

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