Company’s genius invention aims to solve major problem with offshore wind farms: ‘This project is that entire vision coming to life’

Building floating wind farms in the Pacific has massive potential for clean energy development — but presents oceanic challenges for surveying sites.

The technology company Ocean Infinity thinks it has a solution: underwater robot drones.

Recently, the firm, which specializes in “creating and using robotic technology to transform operations at sea,” contracted with Equinor Wind US to study an area off California leased by the United States government to develop wind energy.

As CleanTechnica explained, the continental shelf of the West Coast drops off precipitously, which makes its seafloor “steep and deep” compared to areas of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico under development for offshore wind.

Floating wind turbines aren’t completely stationary and don’t need foundations built into the seafloor, but they still need locations for anchors and cables or chains to keep their platforms from drifting away, CleanTechnica noted. Hence the challenge to survey the depths.

Ocean Infinity plans to tackle this Pacific problem by sending part of its fleet of autonomous underwater vehicles — essentially submarine drones — to study the seafloor.

“The U.S. West Coast, with its challenging deep water topography, presents [an] excellent opportunity for Ocean Infinity to deliver the value of its multi-AUV capabilities,” Shawntel Johnson, Ocean Infinity business development director, said in a statement.

Oliver Plunkett, the firm’s CEO, added: “When Ocean Infinity was formed, the idea of using robotics at enormous scale to collect more data, faster and with less environmental impact while optimizing safety was our guiding principle. This project is that entire vision coming to life.”

Scientists started using uncrewed devices to explore the ocean in the 1960s, reports the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. AUVs have advantages over tow-behind mapping devices that require the expensive operation of surface ships.

As NOAA notes, AUVs come in customized shapes and sizes, from streamlined submersibles for rapid assessment of large areas to sturdier devices armored against deep-ocean pressures. AUVs have been likened to Mars rovers because they don’t require crews or cables.

The underwater devices Ocean Infinity uses look like submarines or torpedoes. The company has also launched surface-based robot ships as the spinoff venture Armada.

Surveying the Pacific makes Ocean Infinity part of the broader effort to expand offshore wind. CleanTechnica reported that the U.S. government opened five leases for Pacific wind farms in 2022, marking the “first-ever opportunity for commercial-scale floating offshore wind energy in the United States.”

The Equinor lease that Ocean Infinity will survey could provide two gigawatts of wind power, conservatively enough for up to 600,000 homes based on Department of the Interior estimates — or possibly more if power is generated more continuously.

CleanTechnica noted: “This is great, because approximately two-thirds of America’s offshore wind energy potential lies in deep waters.”

It’s also great because the replacement of this amount of dirty energy generation avoids toxic gas releases that trap heat on Earth. Two gigawatts of wind power could replace six coal-fired power plants.

Ocean Infinity plans to start exploring off California in February 2024.

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