Disruptive UAS Technology Poised To Help U.S. Offshore Wind Energy Industry Forge Ahead
One of the core benefits of UAS technology (and unmanned technology generally such as ground, water surface and subsurface unmanned vehicles) is that it is much safer to operate and more economical and efficient than the traditional manned vehicles used to carry out necessary and critical missions that by their nature are unsafe. Manned vehicles such as airplanes or helicopters are much more dangerous and expensive to operate and maintain and also require a high level of logistical communications, coordination and time before they can be deployed. By comparison, deployment of UAS technology dramatically mitigates human safety risk since no one is actually on board and unmanned aircraft are more readily portable allowing for a much more timely and inexpensive deployment in unsafe conditions or emergency situations. UAS technology is already being utilized for an incredibly wide array of industries and professions including fire management, real estate services, post-storm and disaster assessments, bridges, pipelines, powerlines, energy generation facilities and other critical infrastructure inspections, construction activities, mining, precision agriculture, cultural resource inventory, various environmental/wildlife surveys, assessments and monitoring activities, search & rescue missions, first responders and law enforcement operations.
The U.S. offshore wind energy industry is taking its very first step and going forward will be well positioned to take advantage of the quickly expanding UAS technology and the endless applications that can help reduce the installation costs of offshore wind development projects. From pre-construction surveys, minimizing risk liability for compliance with the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act to post-construction operation and maintenance inspections, the incorporation of UAS technology will allow for a safer, more efficient undertaking of activities and tasks that will help protect a project’s bottom line and ultimately the marketability of its wind energy product.
For example, UAS technology can be deployed to assist in various pre-construction surveys (seasonal wildlife utilization) of Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) blocks for a proposed leasing area. UAS technology can help avoid impacts to the North Atlantic right whale which is listed as an endangered species and protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) as well as other listed species (other marine mammal and sea turtle species). On January 27, 2016, the critical habitat previously designated (1994) for the North Atlantic right whale was significantly expanded in its northeast feeding area and in its southeast calving area. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) within the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has already designated Seasonal Management Areas (SMAs) for regions along the Atlantic seaboard (Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Southeast) to protect against vessel- right whale strikes in areas where this whale species is known to seasonally feed, migrate and rear calves. Within the SMAs vessel speeds are restricted to 10 knots or less. 50 CFR 224.105. Federal regulations also require vessels to maintain a separation distance of 500 yards (460 m) from a right whale and to implement avoidance measures if within the prohibited distance. 50 CFR 224.103(c). The North Atlantic right whale SMA vessel speed restrictions and separation distance requirements are also set forth in BOEM’s Addendum “C” Standard Operating Conditions as part of the OCS Lease instrument that lessees are required to comply with. In addition to the North Atlantic right whale, BOEM’s Addendum “C” Standard Operating Conditions also imposes upon an OCS lessee vessel separation distance restrictions for other whale species and listed sea turtle species. UAS technology can be a used as an innovative and efficient tool to help detect listed species such as the North Atlantic right whale and then coordinate vessel avoidance measures.
Going another step further for nighttime vessel operations (and presuming you have been issued an FAA certificate of waiver for small UAS operations at night), UAS technology already exist that enables a small unmanned aircraft to be equipped with a payload consisting of a thermal imaging sensor that can be used for detection of heat signatures (whales and other species) at the water surface. There will be a lot of vessel traffic out and back to offshore wind lease sites so being able to easily maintain vessel separation distance means vessel strikes are much less likely to occur which keeps a lessee in compliance with BOEM’s OCS Addendum “C” Standard Operating Conditions and ultimately avoids ESA/MMPA liabilities regarding impacts to North Atlantic right whales and other listed species. UAS technology can also benefit offshore wind development in other new ways. During construction phases UAS technology can serve as an eye in the sky to provide the zoom in or zoom out monitoring of construction activities (tower, nacelle or blade installations) in real time. This may be useful for better coordination of construction task sequencing or identifying potential flaws in construction materials and better assessing safety conditions for construction workers to avoid and minimize accidents/injuries offshore.
As offshore wind developments are constructed and come online there will be a need to conduct operation and maintenance through their lifespan. UAS technology already is building a positive track record for conducting inspections of land-based critical infrastructure from railroads, pipelines, bridges, industrial sites, power lines, cell towers and on-shore wind farms which allows a more efficient and strategic assessment of O&M needs without risking human safety. This same efficiency can easily be captured and applied to the up and coming U.S. offshore wind energy projects. The U.S. offshore wind energy industry has spread its wings to take flight and with its growing UAS Industry contemporary will soar to the greatest heights.