Wind turbine

Winds of change

The Scottish Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications is working with the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult to use satellite data to help the renewables industry, as Kristy Dorsey finds out.

At the Scottish Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications (SoXSA), it’s all about bringing space technologies down to Earth, and doing it in a way that makes the planet a better place to be. Possibly the best example of this is the centre’s collaboration with the Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult, the UK Government-backed innovation and research centre dedicated to creating sustainable wind, wave and tidal industries in UK waters. SoXSA director Malcolm Macdonald says bridging the gap from space to subsea might seem a massive task, but the environmental upside is potentially enormous.

“We can monitor things from space in a way that is difficult or even impossible to achieve otherwise,” he explains. “We already understand some of the benefits, but there’s still much more to explore.”

SoXSA – one of five centres of excellence set up by ORE’s space equivalent, the Satellite Applications Catapult – has been working with the nearby Glasgow hub of ORE for a couple of years on ways that data from on high can drive efficiency in alternative offshore energy.

The partnership is a natural one in a couple of contexts, one being the shared ethos of two groups both rooted in the catapult programme aimed at driving innovation to promote economic growth. The other is proximity – both on George Street, the Glasgow hubs of SoXSA and ORE are less than a two-minute walk apart. The pair have already jointly funded a six-month internship for a researcher who looked at the availability of satellite data over ocean sites. Coverage of these areas is patchy, as most monitoring from space is focused on land, particularly population areas.

Julian 2Andrew Macdonald, senior innovation manager for the ORE Catapult, says that will be followed by a two-month secondment of another researcher who this time around will look at how data from space can help wind farm developers determine the best positioning of their turbines. Meanwhile, monitoring of weather conditions and wave heights could similarly improve decisions on when to access structures for maintenance.

“There are a number of different opportunities we are looking at,” says Macdonald at ORE. “They have yet to crystallise into any concrete projects, but we have a number of avenues to explore.” Some space-based technologies such as synthetic aperture radar (SAR) already have a proven track record in other fields, and are therefore primed for transfer into offshore renewables. SAR is used to help manage and protect marine environments, and to detect illegal logging in tropical rain forests. It has further been deployed to aid in disaster relief. SAR uses the motion of its antenna over a target region to provide finer spatial resolution than is possible with conventional beam-scanning radars. It is usually mounted on a moving platform such as a spacecraft or aircraft.

The distance the SAR device travels over a target creates a large ‘synthetic’ antennae aperture. Usually the larger the aperture is, the higher the image resolution becomes, regardless of whether it is a physical or synthetic aperture. In this way, SAR creates high-resolution images with relatively small physical antennas.

It can detect slight movements of just a few millimetres, is resistant to weather and can pick up features through cloud or rain. As such, it seems an ideal method for monitoring wind turbines and other offshore energy structures.

Very small shifts in buildings and landscapes are difficult to detect, but SAR’s ‘before’ and ‘after’ images are compared by computer algorithm to spot where even minor movement has occurred. In the case of offshore wind turbines with concrete bases, this could be used to detect subsidence, which is exacerbated by the vibration of the turbine.

As SoXSA’s Macdonald explains it, if even a bit of movement occurs in an offshore turbine, there is a problem. Early detection means complications can be dealt with quickly, limiting damage and bringing down the expense of maintenance. “It’s all about making the best possible use of our natural resources, which could ultimately help bring down the cost of energy for end-users,” he says. “Everybody wins.”

In addition to that, the technology should be capable of more quickly detecting fallen pylons in remote areas than would otherwise be possible. It could also enhance the efficiency of network monitoring at a time of growing global demand for energy, as well as supporting the cost of using the technology in future humanitarian programmes.

ORE is working with small and medium-sized businesses in its sector to help them access funding from a variety of sources to develop products and services in the arena of space. One important source of money is the European Space Agency (ESA), Europe’s ‘gateway to space’ founded in 1975.

Offshore energy is seen as a key market for satellite applications and, to that end, ORE announced in September 2015 that it would host ESA ‘ambassadors’ in an effort to identify and facilitate offshore energy needs that can be met by space assets.
The initiative is part of the ESA’s broader platform of ambassador programmes, which is aimed at all aspects of the offshore industry, not just renewables. But supporters of the renewables industry point to the strong synergies between ORE and SoXSA, both of which are looking to secure economic value for the UK by building capability that has cross-sector applications.

For its part, ESA points out that Earth has never been more energy-hungry, though new technology is required for supply to keep pace with demand. Innovations for space missions – including power supply and management systems – are helping the terrestrial sector as it works to serve its customers in a more environmentally-friendly manner.

“The interesting thing is putting the two industries together,” says ORE’s Macdonald. “With installed capacity of UK offshore wind turbines set to double in the next few years, satellite applications have the potential to significantly reduce on-going inspection and maintenance costs. The extension of these applications is, to be honest, probably a secondary cost driver, but could have a big impact on the long-term viability of offshore renewables.”