The project to implement the operation of unmanned autonomous vessels to service offshore wind farms, prepared by Gdańsk-based Blue Armada Robotics, won the European ELBE Challenge competition for innovative small and medium-sized enterprises in Europe. The Call for Financial Support to Innovation, organized with support from the European Commission by the ELBE (European Leaders of Blue Energy) Alliance, offered the opportunity to prepare solutions for offshore wind developers who were invited to support the initiative, including Ocean Winds, international company dedicated to offshore wind and developing the BC-Wind project in Poland. We spoke to Michal Latacz, CEO of Blue Armada Robotics Ltd. about the winning project.
Paweł Wróbel, BalticWind.EU: Why did you decide to participate in the ELBE competition?
Michal Latacz, Blue Armada Robotics: Blue Armada Robotics is a Polish entity with international ambitions. ELBE brings together eight European so-called reference clusters in the offshore renewable energy sector. The alliance supports and strengthens the internationalization of European companies in international offshore renewable energy markets in North America (USA, Canada) and Asia (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan) since 2016. From our perspective this competition is much more than a competition for European technology companies in the offshore wind industry therefore we paid attention to the announced ELBE Challenge program. For our company, from the beginning of its participation in the competition and the preliminaries, a great added value has been the industry representatives involved in the program, whose role in it is not only to precisely define their needs they want to be met in their daily operations thanks to modern technology, but are also ready to implement and integrate modern technologies into their value chain using i.e. robotics, artificial intelligence and cloud computing.
Ocean Winds, in its role as an industry partner, which is defined in the European Leaders of Blue Energy project as a so-called Challenge Owner, has precisely defined four areas in which the company seeks effective solutions to automate processes related to the acquisition of data on offshore assets, increase human safety, improve data quality and reduce the costs of offshore operations in the construction and operation phases of the wind farms that Ocean Winds currently owns and plans to build. These strategic areas were presented to several competition participants in detail both in the competition documentation and during an open remote meeting with Ocean Winds representatives, where we were able to ask detailed questions about the problems faced by developers and operators of offshore wind farms, the goals they are setting for themselves those areas of interest and the desired functionality of the autonomous data acquisition systems Ocean Winds is looking for.
An important factor determining our decision to take part in the competition proceedings was that a significant part of the functionality of the automated systems sought by Ocean Winds are functionalities that are, so to speak, written into the DNA of the portfolio of services being developed by Blue Armada Robotics for the OWE industry. This fact was even more important because one of the conditions set by Ocean Winds was to demonstrate the operation of the first functional data collection system at a wind farm site by the end of 2024 which requires the participants in the competition to demonstrate a high level of technological readiness from the beginning of the implementation. I admit that from the beginning of the competition process, I felt that our proposal fits very well with the competition criteria as well as with the communicated set of needs of Ocean Winds both as a builder and operator of offshore wind farms in many places around the world. Therefore, we made the decision to take on the ELBE Challenge. Blue Armada Robotics is a young entity, but it is formed by a team of specialists with experience in developing offshore drones and performing offshore work using them. Participation in the competitive process of selecting the winner of the ELBE Challenge gave us the opportunity to directly present our offer to Ocean Winds representatives, along with the technologies we use in our unmanned vessels and the resulting opportunities to increase the economic efficiency of the farms.
Kacper Kostrzewa, BC-Wind Project Director, Ocean Winds:
By our participation in ELBE EuroCluster as a Challenge Owner, and by supporting and facilitating our challenge winners to develop and implement their innovative solutions, Ocean Winds is fulfilling its BC-Wind Project Innovation Strategy commitments. Our cooperation with a Polish company in the offshore wind supply chain, promoting an international collaboration between Polish and other European start-ups (Blue Armada Robotics + Elwave) helps the networking of the Polish innovation ecosystem for the purpose of international exposure of projects, research centers and companies.
Why is it important for companies like OW to be directly involved in projects like Eurocluster ELBE ?
Kacper Kostrzewa: From the perspective of a company offering cutting-edge services to the offshore wind industry, the participation of companies such as Ocean Winds is of fundamental importance. It is the presence of the industry representing the end-users of the implemented technologies that makes participation in this program not only a great opportunity for us to implement our technologies and services in the offshore wind industry, or support in the efficient creation of an international portfolio of future clients of our company, but also, and perhaps most importantly, an opportunity for companies such as Ocean Winds to receive services and implement technologies tailored to the current and future needs of the organization.
So what did the OW expect from this competition?
Kacper Kostrzewa: In Poland, for its BC-Wind project, Ocean Winds made a very specific request for solutions in the four subject areas that were inspections, security, rescue support and provision of transportation assets. The inspection area includes – regular inspections of Offshore Wind Turbine, Offshore Substation underwater substructures and cabling (Inter Array and Export) as well as periodical inspection and monitoring of seabed and marine life environment – during both the construction phase of farms (so-called surveys) and the operation and maintenance phase of farms (O&M). In practice, this includes surveys of cable routes, reconnaissance and penetration of the seabed for foundations installation, conducting monitoring of designated sites, processing of collected data such as the degree of wear of corrosion protection, measurements of the thickness of protective coatings, measurements of the operating parameters of active corrosion protection systems, wide spectrum measurements of the condition of monopile and jacket structures up to the supervision of underwater and surface infrastructure until its connection on shore.
The farm security area includes the functions of securing the Offshore Wind Farm (OWF) in case of any incident at the farm site combined with the ability of remote transmission of incident data to the shore Control Station. The rescue area includes assisting maritime search and rescue (SAR) units in the event of an incident, especially in conditions of limited and poor visibility including locating and observing the incident site. Finally, the transportation area understood as the transport of spare parts from the service base to the Offshore Wind Farm. It was also important to be able to supervise the work of the fleet of robots located at the farms from land. Importantly, according to Ocean Winds’ expectation, the offered solutions should be ready to be implemented as early as 2024.
What did you offer?
Michal Latacz: The work of our fleet, as a rule, is based on the use of two types of robots, i.e. surface USVs (Unmanned Surface Vehicles) and underwater ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicles). The surface ones are catamarans capable of carrying 200 kg of cargo such as sensors for acquiring seabed and sub-seabed data, means of communication and situational awareness. We are also working on an automatic docking station that, carried by a USV, will carry an ROV robot working underwater. This one, also imbued with sensors and state-of-the-art optoelectronics, is used to conduct various types of survey and inventory work. Our USV robots can operate at sea for 14 days without the need of coming back to ports. We use the so-called “ping to cloud” methodology that allows us to collect a very large amount of data while working at sea to be processed both on the robot and in the cloud. Thanks to this, it will be possible to follow and supervise the work of our robots working, for example, in the Baltic or North Sea in real time from the Ocean Winds office in Warsaw. What’s more, you can change the parameters of their work in real time. As part of the project for Ocean Winds, we will carry out offshore missions related to survey, turbine foundation surveillance and detection of so-called UXO. The collected data will be transmitted to shore thanks to a cloud solution. The work of our fleet will be traceable in real time using an array of communication means depending on the body of water where the work will be carried out.
What innovations will your robots bring to the offshore industry?
Michal Latacz: Blue Armada Robotics is a Polish company founded in 2022 by an experienced team with roots in advanced marine robotics and underwater unmanned systems applications. The company is introducing an automation service for surveying and inspecting underwater resources for the marine industry, including a robotic fleet of unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) for data collection using the same array of sensors that are installed on today’s manned oceanographic vessels. Additionally, in conjunction with robotic ROVs, we intend to enable developers, Tier 1 service providers, infrastructure operators and asset owners to significantly increase the safety of operations by reducing or eliminating the need for humans to be present in the marine environment and a more than 90% reduction in CO2 emissions in the data collection and surveillance process compared to a service provided in the traditional manner (using manned vessels), which will translate into a reduction in emission fees to be imposed on, for example, investors and wind farm operators.
Our inspection services in the form of DaaS (Data as a Service) enable the introduction of an easily scalable business model that allows customers to receive data faster, also in the form of cyclic measurements for imaging dynamic processes occurring in areas under supervision, such as wind farms, mining, or transmission installations like pipelines, along with the function of automated change detection.
We also guarantee a significant reduction in data acquisition costs. Since, among other things, a significant improvement in the economic efficiency of maritime operations through a 90% reduction in fuel demand and the collection of more useful data using units that are much cheaper to build and maintain. Our company’s offer is primarily aimed at suppliers and installation companies (referred to as Tier 1) serving the offshore wind energy sector in the areas of design, engineering, supply, construction, and installation, as well as developers and operators of offshore wind farms and operators of offshore transmission infrastructure. The company’s service enables cyclical data acquisition at predetermined intervals, as well as tracking and modelling of dynamic factors affecting the condition of the infrastructure. It is intended to enable better service planning and intervention optimization, which aids in the process of extending the life cycle of supervised structures. Our company’s fleet is designed with the goal of scaling our operations in mind; as a result, we place a high value on emerging international legal regulations regarding unmanned maritime units, and we build our vessels in accordance with applicable regulations and developed guidelines for international waters, both in terms of their construction and the systems or software that controls them and is responsible for mission safety.
How do your robots use artificial intelligence?
Michal Latacz: First – thanks to AI, the robots can safely navigate vessel traffic in accordance with relevant international regulations. In addition to AIS system, they use incoming data from radar and machine vision systems, which are constantly trying to recognize the surrounding environment and categorize it. The machines can operate at the so-called 4th level of autonomy at sea, they perform work independently, only under human supervision conducted from the shore station. Most importantly, our robots not only efficiently avoid obstacles and other vessels but are also able to plan and execute maneuvers in accordance with applicable regulations of vessel traffic. The USV and ROV robots can be controlled by an operator located at the Control Station in a task-oriented manner, e.g. with commands such as “follow cable”, “circle object” “hold position”, “scan area”, etc.
Such a way of functioning ensures safe operation of the robot and measurable benefits, for example, in the case of estimating the risks of the operations carried out with their participation, which has a bearing, for example, on the cost of insuring the operations carried out or the wind farm infrastructure itself. Regarding safety, it is worth adding that our robots also have ready-made scenarios for action in the event of short- or long-term loss of radio or satellite connectivity, in which they can continue their assigned tasks autonomously – search for a place where connectivity can be restored or simply return safely to the service base to inspect the robot. This is of particular importance in the Baltic Sea, where the risk of losing communication between the Control Station and the robots is greater than, say, in the North Sea.
The second major area where we are introducing machine learning is in oceanographic data analysis and processing. We are aiming to process the data as much as possible automatically while still on board the unmanned vessel before sending it to the cloud (on-edge computing).
Artificial intelligence is very well suited for survey data cleaning work, thanks to which the collected data itself takes up less space, which is important insofar as hundreds of terabytes of data are collected during a single mission and a significant part of the processing is conducted automatically. Thanks to AI, the data cleansing process itself is faster, there is no loss of quality in the collected information and clients, if necessary, can keep track of incoming data and receive final reports on executed campaigns much faster than is the case with currently well-established processes on the market.
How are you changing the approach to ROV work?
Michal Latacz: The lack of a sufficient number of vessels capable of conducting proper surveillance of future maritime infrastructure under construction in European seas results in a lack of ability of the maritime industry to provide the scalable capabilities necessary to meet the goals set for us by the European Commission and the adopted energy policy of EU countries. With many types of surveys and inspections, this implies the increasing use of robotic solutions and the necessity to use an ROV for many inspection tasks implies the emerging need for an international market for the use of a tandem of two robots, i.e. a USV as a surface carrier of a underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV) in order to bring the sensors it carries directly in the close proximity of the object of interest, such as pipelines, power cables, wind power plant foundations, without the need to engage a manned vessel for this task. We are also working on the implementation of an effective and safe system for taking ROVs out to sea using unmanned USVs moving on the sea surface.
ROVs have a great number of applications in inspection tasks of underwater infrastructure and are even indispensable for are vast majority of those tasks. Working with such vehicles is difficult today, and in principle, with waves over 1-metre high, such work is being terminated due to the safety of equipment and people working in the sea. So far, there is only one company in the world that I know of which communicates having an effective, (sea-proven) ROV-type docking system/station for a USV “mother” vehicle. I would very much like Blue Armada Robotics to demonstrate such a reliable capability as a second entity in the world. The system we are working on is intended to enable ROV-type inspection vehicles to be taken to sea autonomously and operated at much higher sea states which further expands the weather windows in which such operations can be conducted, in other words, our goal is to do more work in the same amount of time with lower cost of operations and significantly reduced risk to people who are kept in secure mission control stations.
What innovative solutions will you show to detect unexploded ordnance?
Michal Latacz: As a first in the OWE industry, we want to demonstrate the ability to detect ferro and non-ferromagnetic objects located both on the seabed and under the seabed using a novel technology being developed with our French partner Elwave, with whom we are jointly integrating their cutting-edge sensory technology into our robots. We also plan to demonstrate the capabilities of this technology while working for Ocean Winds. This is of great importance in seas such as the Baltic and North Sea, where there are still a lot of unexploded ordnance, and where there is a threat of such objects appearing because of ongoing activities. So far, it has been particularly difficult to detect non-ferromagnetic charges. Together with Elwave, we are preparing an integrated UXO system for the detection of unexploded ordnance and unwanted objects. Unlike the current systems used for UXO detection, the system we are testing is compact and work using it can be carried out using inspection class ROV vehicles carrying it. For cable inspections, it will circumvent the interference that often occurs in the vicinity of offshore AC power cables, the transmission of which causes interference that often prevents conducting inspection works effectively. So far, in such conditions, it is often necessary to stop the operation of turbines so that no current flows in the cables while the robots are working. Our equipment can handle such a situation and the operation of turbines during the inspection of power cables does not have to be stopped, which is also one of our distinguishing features and a source of further benefits for farm operators.