Offshore wind is one of the UK’s biggest industrial successes of recent years. Our waters are home to the world’s largest installed capacity of offshore wind and we are targeting 75GW by 2050 as a prerequisite of Net Zero. Along the way, we have a compelling Green Recovery opportunity too: the Government’s Offshore Wind Sector Deal targets a 60% increase in UK content at our offshore wind farms and a five-fold increase in exports.

Evolution of working practices must go hand-in-hand with this exciting journey, as we expand the size of our offshore wind fleet, create more jobs and integrate new technologies. Health and safety is a strategic priority for us, as well as for the operators, manufacturers and supply chain players who work with us.

G+. the body that tracks health and safety incidents at offshore wind sites, can report a strong industry record with consistent improvement, but new challenges lie ahead as sites and workforces expand rapidly, and wind farms enter ever deeper waters, further offshore. Let’s take a closer look at why we need to evolve working practices further in the industry, before moving on to the most promising and ingenious solutions on the table.

Offshore wind working today

According to the SPARTA operational database for UK wind farms, offshore wind turbines can be difficult to access for anything up to a quarter of the year due to sea states and wave heights that preclude the safe transfer of personnel. When technicians can reach site, they need to transfer to turbine platforms from crew transfer vessels (CTVs), Service Operation Vessels (SOVs) and, increasingly, helicopters. They then conduct a variety of complex, manual tasks working at height (suspended by rope), diving to the level of foundations and sub-structures and in the restricted spaces of blade and monopile interiors.

Aerial view of Middelgrunden Wind Turbine Offshore Wind Park outside of Copenhagen on a sunny day in Denmark

While the industry’s health and safety record shows a steady improvement, there remains an imperative to bring incident rates down further. Last year, the Total Recordable Incident Rate (TRIR) for workers at offshore wind farms globally was 5.5 in 2019 (down from 6.5 in 2014[1]) with 865 reported incidents (in the eight countries for which there is data). Forty-one incidents required an emergency response or evacuation.

The inaccessibility of sites, delayed missions and difficulties in conducting pre-emptive repairs have cost implications too. We estimate that unscheduled operations and maintenance activities on offshore wind installations account for almost a quarter of the lifetime cost of an average site.

As we push offshore wind sites further from shore and into ever-deeper waters, including with floating structures, the operational landscape will have to change: for both the welfare of the workforce and in order to achieve the cost reductions needed for Net Zero. Let’s look at some of our collaborative research and innovation projects that are leading the way as part of our O&M Centre of Excellence.

Solving the access challenge

SPOWTT, a €3.6 million academic-industry consortium project, has concluded its research into the psychological and physiological well-being of personnel onboard CTVs during transit to offshore wind farms. It has produced a sail/no sail decision-support tool for marine coordinators, as well as a new understanding of seasickness and how it develops on these vessel types.

Another collaborative project WAVES, is also set to improve the prediction of safe access conditions significantly. Using a novel physics-based machine-learning algorithm, London SME Cognitive Business has raised forecasting accuracy of sail/no sail decisions from 80% (using current techniques) to 97% accuracy.

UK SME Pict Offshore, a spin-off from Limpet Technology, an Edinburgh-based developer of innovative industrial access equipment, has developed the game-changing Get Up Safe personnel transfer system that has been demonstrated at our 7MW Levenmouth Demonstration Turbine. This motion-compensated hoist uses in-built lasers and other sensors to track the movement of crew transfer vessels on the waves, automatically adjusting the line position to keep transferees safe. This system is set to replace landing ladders in future Ørsted windfarms, reducing costs, increasing access to turbines from 50% to 80% of the year, and improving safety during transfers.

Robotics and autonomous systems

Although human intervention will always be needed at offshore sites, we can do much to reduce technician presence. The over-arching goal for the industry in the coming decade is to move job creation ashore, steering it towards remote site supervision, data-driven and advanced programming roles.

ORE Catapult is currently partnering on development and trial of a variety of robotic platforms and technologies capable of conducting inspections of turbine monopiles, foundations and blades. Rovco’s SubSLAM X2, developed under an Innovate UK funded project, is a 3D real-time imaging and positioning system, that enables subsea robotics systems to navigate and survey turbine foundations, monopiles and jacket structures, without the need for deep-sea divers. It can yield high-resolution 3D models of assets, combining millimetric precision, advanced object recognition and a proof-of-concept navigational mapping technique.

Under a yet more ambitious scenario, the MIMRee project (Multi-Platform Inspection, Maintenance and Repair in Extreme Environments) will demonstrate how an autonomous vessel can scan moving blades for defects, before transporting blade crawling robots by drone to effect close-up inspection and repair. From a health and safety perspective, MIMRee will reduce human presence in the extreme offshore environment, allowing technicians to work onshore and communicate with the robotic platforms through MIMRee’s human-machine interface.

Smart O&M

Harnessing Big Data, behavioural modelling and smart technologies is another stream of activity that will help reduce offshore working in our industry. ORE Catapult is spearheading this drive through a Wind Digital Innovation Forum in collaboration with our Digital Catapult colleagues, bringing smart technology developers together with wind farm operators to increase remote monitoring of assets and our Platform for Operational Data (POD), making operational data available to innovators.  

The aim is to bring in technology disruptors that can accelerate the digitalisation of offshore wind farms. One such example is EchoBolt, a small business working with us under Innovate UK of the same name. In order to test and maintain torque, technicians currently have to loosen and then retighten turbine bolts using heavy-duty hydraulic wrenches, working with high-pressure fluids and having to manage the risk of entrapment. EchoBolt’s concept is to use handheld devices that can test and even predict the future torque of bolts using ultrasonics, eliminating heavy manual working and reducing future visits to each turbine.

The future of health and safety innovation

I have given a taster of some of the innovations that we expect will transform offshore wind working in the coming years. It is far from the end of the line though, and this fusion of academic research, big industry players and SME disruptors will be needed to maintain the momentum. That is why we are inviting innovators from all sectors to bring their ideas to the table to work with us at our O&M Centre of Excellence at Grimsby, the world’s largest offshore wind O&M centre. Recent innovation calls have attracted companies working in such diverse areas as mountaineering, civil engineering, search and rescue, yacht-racing and even film-making.

A crucial advantage for UK developers is the ready availability of test and demonstration sites for new technologies on their doorstep. ORE Catapult operates a variety of simulation facilities at its National Renewable Energy Centre in Blyth, Northumberland, as well as the 7MW Levenmouth Demonstration Turbine off the cost of Fife.

Our most promising game-changers go through to trials at commercial sites, such as Vattenfall’s European Offshore Wind Deployment Centre (EOWDC) and Equinor’s Hywind Scotland Floating Wind Farm. Through a five-year partnership with the Oil & Gas Technology Centre (OGTC) we are also ensuring that the knowledge and experience gained by the biggest energy players in the oil and gas sector are transferred to the next generation of UK green energy businesses, too.

The coming decades present the greatest challenges humanity has ever faced in tackling climate change, and offshore renewables will be decisive in meeting net-zero targets across the world. While working for this bigger picture, we are also striving to position UK businesses and workers at the forefront of the economic race. As we go, we – and the wider offshore renewables sector – will ensure that the green energy workplaces of the future have the health, safety and wellbeing of their people at their heart.

[1] According to G+, the Global Health and Safety Organisation’s 2019 incident data report: