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.
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 turbines and other drone inspections the camera can detect hot spots and other signs of potential problems.
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.