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Autonomous & Intelligent UAV-based Wind Turbine Inspection System for Cost-effective, Reliable, Safe and Actionable Blade Fault Detection and Prediction

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Drone inspections could boost wind energy sector

Blade maintenance represents a critical cost challenge for the wind sector. An innovative drone solution could help to optimise blade inspections, and deliver operational efficiencies.

Energy

The ongoing inspection and maintenance of wind turbine blades is critically important to the renewable energy sector, helping operators to identify potential problems early and avoid costly stoppages. Serious blade damage or malfunction can cause significant disruptions, and ultimately prove extremely costly. “This is a major challenge for a relatively new industry,” says Windrone Zenith project coordinator André Moura, founder and CEO of BladeInsight, Portugal. “Global blade repairs alone cause approximately 187 399 days, or over 500 years, of turbine downtime annually.” Traditional manned inspection methods however tend to be expensive, time-consuming and hazardous, relying on skilled personnel capable of accessing very tall structures that are usually located in remote areas. Other methods, such as capturing blade images from ground cameras, tend to deliver poor image quality. Developing safer, efficient and more reliable alternatives could therefore help make the wind sector more reliable and competitive, and support the global transition toward renewable energy.

Drone-based inspections

One solution pioneered by BladeInsight is to use automated flying drones to carry out blade inspections. Through the Windrone Zenith project, the company sought to build on its expertise in the field to develop an inspection drone equipped with cutting-edge hardware and software. The project team developed a drone solution capable of inspecting all three blades on both onshore and offshore turbines in a single operation. Software ensures that the drone can safely fly autonomously, gathering high-resolution images, which allows for the identification of even hairline cracks. The data collected can then be analysed by experts on the BladeInsight cloud platform, helping them to build up a clear picture of the blade’s life cycle. All available blade data is then made available to customers, while machine learning algorithms are used to continuously improve automated fault detection. “Our goal from the start was to empower operators to make data-driven decisions, to enable them to carry out more predictive maintenance,” explains Moura. “Our drone solution collects data in a way that is more accurate than ground-based inspections, and safer and cheaper than manned rope inspections.”

Global technology reach

Wind energy is currently striving to be economically competitive against traditional energy generation sources without the support of subsidies, and optimising operational and maintenance costs in this way could lift the sector. “By providing asset managers with the data, insights and analytics they need to make effective decisions, I feel we are contributing to making wind energy more viable,” adds Moura. “Optimising blade maintenance also means maximising their efficiency over their full life cycle, which means the sector is more sustainable.” While continuing to optimise the drone solution, Moura and his team are also looking to develop new innovations. These include an integrated system for internal blade inspection and software for full maintenance management, through which users can upload their data directly onto the platform. “The Windrone Zenith project has been an important milestone for us,” says Moura. “During the course of the project, the company also secured a strategic investment from a global services provider in the offshore energy industry. This will reinforce the global reach of our technology, enabling us to keep innovating in our products in order to deliver maximum value to the industry.”

Keywords

Windrone Zenith, renewable, wind, energy, drone, software, algorithms, inspections

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