Can Drones be Used for Wind Turbine Inspections?

The number of uses for drones is almost growing by the day, along with the number of eager, newly trained drone pilots who are keen to make a living from this exciting development in technology.

One of the growth areas, we’re told, is the inspection of both onshore and offshore wind farms. Wind turbines seem to be springing up everywhere and some will claim that a disproportionately high number is appearing in the north of the UK.

Meanwhile newly qualified pilots, with the ink still not dry on their Permission for Aerial Work from the CAA, will be trying to come up with a long list of jobs they can use their drone for. Usually it starts with video and stills for TV or corporate clients and works its way through agricultural surveys, mapping and golf course fly-throughs or estate agency work.

Professional Wind Turbine Inspection

At some stage wind turbines will pop into people’s minds and then you’ll see a few pictures of wind farms appearing on their website and in their show reels. But when you talk to some of the smaller operators the reality, more often than not, doesn’t really live up to expectations. Even established companies with links to relevant industries will tell you it’s a tough market to crack.

Zaid Al Obaidi of Seahawk Aerial Photography in North Wales is a trained civil engineer and saturation diver with years of experience on working in the offshore industry. Even he says it’s been difficult to get wind turbine inspection work. They’ve had some work onshore but none offshore despite his connections and experience. Apart from video work, they also do a lot of mapping for local authorities and environmental organisations.

“Most companies still use rope access for turbine inspections, says Zaid. ” People are still twitchy about flying UAVs near their multi-million pound equipment. There’s a also a certain fear of the unknown. People tend to associate drones with Hellfire missiles.”

“The elements are a problem too when operating drones near turbines, especially offshore.”

One company that’s relatively new to the inspection business is Rectrix AS Ltd based on Teesside and they are using DJI Inspire 1s.

Chris Young, UAV pilot and Business Development Manager, says they are concentrating on chemical plants and pipelines and are also pursuing potential wind turbine clients. So far they haven’t carried out a wind farm job. They are also trying to get one step ahead by trialling a thermal camera supplied by Heliguy in collaboration with Tectroniks.

Heliguy can adapt a DJI Inspire 1 to carry the self-contained thermal camera system on a fixed bracket at the same time as using the standard optical camera and gimbal. For turbine or other inspection work the camera can detect hot spots and other signs of potential problems.

FLIR camera for DJI Inspire 1

Thermal imaging camera mounted on the DJI Inspire 1

RenewableUK is an organisation representing companies in the wind and marine energy sector and they say they’re not aware of any large scale deployment of drones to inspect offshore turbines yet.

Clare Daly, Offshore Wind Relations Manager, says “The manufacturers will generally be responsible for Operations and Maintenance (O&M) while the wind farm is under warranty – typically 10-15 years – after which the operator can decide to use an in-house team or sub-contract. It depends on the project and the developer.”

At present she’s not aware of anyone using in-house drone operators for this type of work.

Benefits of drones for wind turbine inspections

The advantages of using drones over traditional rope access, where men are suspended from wind turbines, is threefold. It’s quicker, cheaper and safer. It’s estimated that inspection time can be cut by 70 per cent when  you use a drone and also equipment doesn’t have to be switched off for long periods. Both of those factors save money. You’re also not putting your employees in harm’s way when you use an aircraft to get to the potentially dangerous locations instead.

One of the biggest, if not the biggest, UAV inspection companies in the UK is Cyberhawk, based at Livingston, west of Edinburgh. Its website claims it’s the world leader in industrial inspection and land surveying using remotely operated aerial vehicles (ROAVs). That’s easy to believe as it also has offices in Aberdeen, Reading, Stavanger, Abu Dhabi and Kuala Lumpur. Its clients are the Oil and Gas industry and Utility companies both onshore and offshore so wind turbines are only a part of their business.

The sort of work that drones are increasingly being used for referred to as 3D inspection jobs – “dirty, dangerous and dull”.

Craig Roberts, Cyberhawk’s CEO, told the BBC recently: “Our offices in Kuala Lumpur and Abu Dhabi are key to effectively serving our rapidly growing customer base in the Middle East and South East Asia.

“While the use of ROAV technology is becoming well established in the UK and Europe, interest in the methodology is rapidly increasing in other parts of the world, particularly within the oil and gas and utilities markets.”

While smaller companies are saying they haven’t got the work, Cyberhawk say June this year was their busiest month ever for offshore oil and  gas work – no specific mention of turbines though. Most of the offshore work seems to be on oil and gas rigs.

Offshore wind turbines

Clare Daly of RenewableUK says she is only aware of Cyberhawk having done any kind of drone work in offshore wind. She says they are also used to carry out photogrammetry surveys of onshore sites and to measure the wind profile of a proposed site, which is helpful to developers. Any filming or photography of turbines is usually commissioned by  a different team to Operations and Maintenance and would more likely be arranged by communications or marketing teams.

That doesn’t mean to say that wind turbine work is closed to small companies. Offshore work is more problematic for the simple reason of access but if you’re a small company in the right location onshore there’s no reason why you can’t take on the big boys but you’ll have to be persistent. Try contacting the wind farm builders/owners and not the power supply companies.

You’ll need to be confident of your piloting skills too. The air around wind turbines can be very unforgiving because of where they are and what they do. There is the potential too for interference with your GPS reception so make sure you’re very comfortable flying in ATTI mode.

It’s reckoned that wind farms have a service life of 20 years so there’s potential for plenty of work. It just may take parts of the industry a little while to realise that the old ways aren’t always the best ways, especially when they cost more. New technology in the form of state of the art drones could be just what they need for a safer and cheaper future.

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