Some jobs are just too difficult, costly or dangerous to be done by a person. Industries like offshore wind and deep mining are looking towards AI and robotics to fulfil roles which could increase productivity and prevent potential harm to workers. Thanks to the £68 million Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund investment, these technologies are now being developed by UK businesses.

Thurn Group and the Development of Autonomous Underwater Vehicles

Thurn Group is one of the businesses to have won investment. This was awarded for their development and plans for autonomous underwater vehicles.

The receding trend of Arctic ice is a well-documented phenomenon. There’s now around half the amount of summer ice as there was twenty years ago. Having said this, the receding thickness of ice is often overlooked. Generally, this has decreased at the same rate. Overall, this means that the extent of ice seen in summer is now about a quarter of what it was in the late 90s. This presents some genuine hazards to shipping and infrastructure in the High Arctic. To help alleviate this, the Thurn Group are developing a fleet of autonomous underwater vehicles. These autonomous underwater vehicles work like robot submarines. These will travel under the ice to judge what dangers it may cause to infrastructure, pipelines and shipping.

Speaking to Innovate UK, Founder of Thurn Group Dr. Thomas Hiller, explains:

“There are a couple of examples of where this service would be useful. One might be ice piling up on the side of an oil rig, and that’s a big safety issue. You can’t send a person under that rubble, it’s too dangerous. So, sending an autonomous underwater vehicle to study it and gauge what the danger is helps you deal with it.”

Dr. Hiller goes on to explain another example of how Thurn Group’s technology could be utilised:

“The opening of new shipping routes. For example, the Northwest Passage will shorten shipping routes which will save oil and speed up delivery times to the UK. That shipping route will be threatened by icebergs. If we can make sure a shipping route is open for longer by understanding what the ice threats are, you’ll lose less fuel supply and goods to the UK economy and help with global climate.”

Perceptual Robotics and the Operation & Maintenance of Wind Farms

Another business which has been selected for the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund investment is Perceptual Robotics. This has been awarded for their innovative approach to the operation and maintenance of offshore wind turbines.

The North Sea is often considered to be the centre of the offshore wind market. Perceptual Robotics looks to cut the costs of operation and maintenance of these wind farms. The business looks to do this by automating the travel to and inspection process of wind turbines. Aiming to develop a collaborative robotics system, Perceptual Robotics see an automated approach to be far more efficient and safe than a manned boat crew. The North Sea is renowned for its high wind, choppy waters and wave conditions. This means there are plenty of challenges associated with carrying out these types of industrial inspections.

Kevin Lind, Co-Founder of Perceptual Robotics talks us through their progress so far:

“Dhalion, our first product, is our drone solution to wind turbine blade inspection, looking at cracks to delamination and faults along the sides of the blades. From the press of a button, all the way through to a generator report, we’re automating the process to make it easy for owners and operators.”


Investing in Business and Research

Innovate UK is giving funding to a number of projects in the robotics and AI systems development sector. 70 businesses, 13 universities, 10 research organisations and 17 demonstrator feasibility studies are receiving investment. This comes as part of a wider push to ensure the UK continues to become a hub for world science and innovation development.

Ruth McKernan, Chief Executive of Innovate UK, had this to say:

“These pioneering projects driven by the very best minds in UK research and industry exemplify the huge potential of what can be achieved through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and the long-term benefits for the UK economy. These are just the first competitions in robotics and AI. There will be further opportunities for businesses in the coming months”.

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