The ORCA Hub – Leading the way in offshore robotics

The Offshore Robotics for the Certification of Assets (ORCA) Hub is a research programme developing Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems for the offshore sector. It brings together five world-class universities - Heriot-Watt University, the University of Edinburgh, Imperial College London, the University of Oxford and the University of Liverpool - and over thirty industry partners, with the aim to revolutionise Asset Integrity Management together for cheaper, safer and more efficient production. There are now over 60 academics, researchers and support staff working in the hub across all five of the universities.

The sectors covered

The university partners carry out early-stage research and discovery science, with support from industry partners, in the following areas:

  • Mapping, Surveying & Inspection;
  • Planning, Control & Manipulation;
  • Human-Robot Interaction with Explainable AI;
  • Robot & Asset Self-Certification.

There are multiple topics of research that fall within these areas that will help breed innovation. Much of the work in the ORCA Hub is applied research and sits at around the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 3-6 mark. After which, industry partners are invited to work collaboratively on commercialising the technology in the fields of Robotics, AI and Autonomous Systems. The hub's mission is to translate research and discovery science into commercial products and services supporting the offshore supply chain.

We are carrying out the early stage research which will make way for ground-breaking technologies to be developed for the offshore market”, explains David Wavell, Business Development Manager, when asked about enabling innovation. “By working with industry at an early stage, we are able to tailor low TRL technology developments to the operational needs of industry from the outset. The work we are carrying out is the stage before market.”

Combatting the hazardous and dangerous work environment that is inherent offshore

The current offshore workforce is ageing and new generations of suitable graduates prefer not to work in hazardous places offshore. Operators therefore seek more cost effective, safe methods and business models for inspection, repair and maintenance of their topside and marine offshore infrastructure. Robotics and artificial intelligence are seen as key enablers in this regard as fewer staff offshore reduces cost, increases safety and workplace appeal.


Unique approach

Traditionally universities and industrial companies take a linear approach to technology development. Research is carried out at the universities and it finds its way to the supply chain eventually by researchers transitioning into an industrial workplace, or companies attending academic conferences to hear about the next breakthrough discoveries. David explains the unique approach adopted by the ORCA Hub, “The ORCA Hub takes a spiral approach to innovation and provides an ecosystem where companies and academics can work together to accelerate the development of technology, de-risking it as it moves through the TRL scale by carrying our regular capability demonstrations. These capability demonstrations take the research out of the lab and allows us to showcase it to industry in field like environments. This enables researchers and industrialists to interact with each other, and allows companies to provide direct feedback to the research that will influence the direction it takes for the benefit of the offshore sector. The capability demonstrations also give industry a window into the future that they can invest in to be developers and early adopters of new technology coming from scientific research.” Further, he believes that this collaborative approach to technology development to be a completely unique model.

The political background to the establishment of the ORCA Hub

The UK Government Industrial Strategy put forward four Grand Challenges seen as fundamental to the success of the UK economy. In turn this led to a UK-wide £93m bid opportunity from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences, to establish a series of substantial Hubs for Robotics working in hazardous environments. Four Hubs were funded; one of which is the ORCA Hub. “Simultaneously, advances in computing power means that the ability to develop artificial intelligence and smart systems is more accessible. This has enabled an increase in development of robotics, AI and autonomous systems across all sectors. The ORCA Hub was created as the offshore industry is seen as an important sector for the UK economy, with lots to gain from the use of robotics and artificial intelligence”, David comments.

Involving industry at every stage in order to ensure early adoption of the solutions

In order for the research being undertaken by the ORCA Hub to provide most value to industry, then industry must be involved from the earliest stages. To help support this transition from research into technology that is found in the offshore marketplace, the Hub has developed a network of academic institutions and key industrial players with regular interaction at events, conferences, workshops and ORCA capability demonstrations. David explains, “This helps gain as much industry exposure to our research as possible to ensure companies see the benefit of investing in the commercialisation of our work to make their businesses safer, more efficient and more cost effective. The ORCA Hub capability demonstrations provide an opportunity for industry to see our research working in an environment they can relate to.”

Working offshore made safer through robotics

The recent oil downturn was a wake-up call to any organisation working offshore, not just oil companies. They came to realise the importance of a safe, productive and efficient work environment. With the recent advances in computing power, it is now possible to use robotics, artificial intelligence and autonomous systems for dirty, dangerous and repetitive tasks, providing the new approach to offshore work required. This not only supported the initial funding for the Hub but has also helped generate significant continued interest in the research undertaken by the ORCA Hub from companies looking to adopt a safer, more productive and more efficient approach to their business.

The next phase

The ORCA Hub is a 3 ½ year long project and we are a little over 18 months in. The first 18 months saw setup of the programme, research starting and the initial capability demonstrations. At this early point in the research, industry have observed our progress with great interest.” As the Hub moves into its second phase, and the research continues to develop, David notes that they will look to setup research projects with companies interested in specific topics of the Hub’s work to help its commercialisation. “We envisage a number of these to be running past the end date of the Hub, which will (1) run autonomously from the Hub, and (2) help support justification for a second round of funding in the hub”, David concludes.


Images © ORCA Hub

By Martine Farstad