Photo: Illustration (Courtesy of the University of the Highlands and Islands)

Researchers use drones to pinpoint tidal energy sweetspots

Researchers in the north of Scotland and Wales are trialling a new method of measuring tidal currents with the help of drones in a project that could revolutionise the marine renewables industry.

Illustration (Courtesy of the University of the Highlands and Islands)
Illustration (Courtesy of the University of the Highlands and Islands)

The project, led by scientists from the University of the Highlands and Islands, will use drones to film the movement of water then apply algorithms to determine its speed.

Benjamin Williamson, a scientist at North Highlands College UHI’s Environmental Research Institute in Thurso, is leading the 12-month project along with colleagues from Swansea University and Bangor University in Wales.

The team will run tests in the Pentland Firth in Scotland and the Ramsey Sound in Wales in various weather conditions.

It is hoped the technique could provide a simple, effective way to identify locations for underwater tidal turbines which will reduce costs for renewable energy developers and generate opportunities for developing countries.

Current methods for measuring tidal streams rely on using survey vessels or installing seabed sensors which can be time consuming and expensive, according to the researchers.

Speaking about the project, Williamson said: “Measuring the flow speed and movement of water is vital for developing offshore renewable energy. These measurements are needed to predict the performance and inform the placement of underwater tidal stream turbines or to optimise the moorings and design of floating turbines. However, gathering these measurements is typically high-cost and high-risk.

“Our aerial technique offers a cost-effective way to support environmentally-sustainable development of marine renewable energy.

It could be used in remote locations and developing countries where suitable survey vessels may not be available or to support community-based approaches to renewable energy generation. We hope to help address the climate emergency by advancing our ability to generate reliable, clean energy”.

The project, dubbed Validating surface currents at offshore renewable energy sites (V-SCORES), is being funded by the Supergen Offshore Renewable Energy Hub, a £9 million Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council project led by the University of Plymouth.

Iain Fairley, from the Swansea University, said: “The work builds upon previous tool development in the EU funded Selkie project. The project will provide comprehensive validation of drone-based surface current measurements and, importantly, provide a relationship between surface currents and currents at the depths where turbines will be installed. This is crucial to provide developers with the confidence to utilise this cutting-edge tool”.

Jared Wilson, Renewables and Energy Programme Manager at Marine Scotland Science, added: “The Scottish Government is pleased to be supporting this exciting project. Tidal stream renewable energy has an important role to play in the transition to low carbon energy sources and Marine Scotland Science looks forward to working with scientists from the University of the Highlands and Islands and everyone involved in the project to help develop the technology.

“By gathering high resolution hydrodynamic data at offshore renewable energy sites, the project will improve our understanding of the potential effects of such technologies and help ensure that they continue to be delivered in an environmentally sustainable manner”.