Pawel Michalak, Global Innovation Director at Fugro.

Pawel Michalak, Global Innovation Director at Fugro.

The increasing adoption of drone-based technologies is opening up new opportunities to accelerate important global trends such as energy transition and climate change adaptation.

“For this remote operations ecosystem to be successful, it must also be open, easy to use and easy to integrate with, based on application programming interface (API) best practices.”

Just five years ago, many of today’s advanced technologies were considered fantastical. But what then seemed futuristic has now become possible. Things such as on-demand inspections of remote infrastructure anywhere in the world, real-time data streaming of coastal areas to aid rapid development, and live augmented-reality (AR) monitoring and modelling of severe weather anomalies.

Today, we’re able to scale up this capability for the first time, ever. But it’s not all about the drones…

Remote operations ecosystem

Drones are just a small piece of the remote operations ecosystem jigsaw puzzle.

These robots have to be strategically deployed around the world to provide rapid access to objects of interest, like critical infrastructure. They need to be secured, and ready to be deployed remotely on a mission.

What we’re talking about here are very advanced, parallel, beyond-line-of-sight operations. They require full redundancy in high-bandwidth satellite communication and real-time, centimetre-level positioning.

Drones need to be able to operate in a swarm scenario, sharing the artificial intelligence (AI) ‘brain’. In practice, this means they all consciously operate in a single digital twin environment, which in turn enables a high level of autonomy, mission planning and intelligent collision avoidance.

They must be able to self-diagnose and protect themselves against potential cyber-security attacks or navigation spoofing.

Data from these robots must be seamlessly integrated in real time and presented to globally distributed experts in a way that enables quick interpretation and decision-making, usually using AR methodologies.

For this remote operations ecosystem to be successful, it must also be open, easy to use and easy to integrate with, based on application programming interface (API) best practices. Anyone should be able to connect their specific drones and take advantage of the secure beyond-line-of-sight robot operation platform.

Technology platform implementation

The greatest challenge we face nowadays is the ability to operate robots, collect data, and deliver real-time, on-demand geo-data insights from anywhere in the world.

Although the choice of drone type will depend on the environment, the ecosystem in which our drones are used is very generic and created following a modular software-hardware as a software as a service (SaaS) architecture.

Having a network of remote operations centres (ROCs) enables the supervision or control of the robotic platforms. It also allows these fully interoperable and redundant hubs to ensure business continuity, supported by the most reliable satellite communication providers.

The satellite based, single centimetre level, real-time position is provided to all drone operators through a dedicated global navigation satellite system (GNSS) network utilising multiple satellite signals and ensuring full redundancy. This has been coupled with a service which ensures real-time navigation integrity (trust that the signal has not been compromised).

Renewable energy solution

With governments around the world outlining ambitious targets to reduce carbon emissions, the offshore renewable energy industry has been developing clever new ways to boost operational efficiency.

The ability to generate as much energy as possible, maximising the uptime of offshore wind turbines is crucial. Regular inspection of the environment and maintenance of the turbines are therefore essential activities. The marine environment is of course very demanding, so inspecting above-water components (such as towers, turbines, and blades) is every bit as important as inspecting the underwater environment, such as scour around the foundations, cable integrity and biodiversity.

The offshore energy industry was one of the early adopters of remote operations capabilities, making use of a highly sophisticated robotic drone systems comprising of an uncrewed surface vessel (USV)–essentially a drone boat with a high degree of autonomy–coupled with an electric, remotely operated underwater vehicle. This combination of two robotic systems means we can perform a broad range of operations and field interventions on-demand.

This is possible with the introduction of offshore autonomous, robotic docking stations (‘RoboDocks’) that will enable automatic USV deployment, close to the energy generation infrastructure.

Importantly, the Remote Operations platform can be utilised by other marine operators to deploy their own robots or drones, or to harvest data from any permanently operating sensor on the infrastructure.

Working towards an autonomous future

The ability to send autonomous vehicles out to the field has significant benefits.

It is particularly advantageous in the offshore energy industry. Using USVs minimises the risk to health and safety by reducing the need for personnel to travel into extreme and hazardous environments, and the associated environmental impact in terms of CO₂ emissions, is marginal. Knowledge gained from the real-time data collected by these robots prevents any interruptions to infrastructure operations and lowers the overall cost of energy generation.

It is unbelievable–and very encouraging–to see what has already been accomplished in such a short period of time. We are at the very beginning of what promises to be a very exciting robotic revolution, and as previously stated, drones themselves are just a small piece of the puzzle.

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