More significant role for drones in wind turbine inspections

Thanks to the growing developments and popularity of drones, also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), the role they play in existing applications such as inspecting wind turbines is set to become more significant and grow.

Back in 2011 we issued a Techniline article about the potential of UAVs for inspecting wind turbines. From a recently published report by Navigant Research it emerges that the importance of drones in the future (2015-2024) will steadily increase as the standard, as well as an additional inspection tool.

The report titled 'Drones for Wind Turbine Inspection' analyses the global market for UAVs used for inspecting wind turbines. The report includes an analysis of the market dynamics, the industrial structure and also the technological features that together are driving the market for UAV hardware and services.

At the beginning of 2015 there were globally approximately 268,550 wind turbines installed on a commercial basis, with a combined generation capacity of 327,381 MW. This works out at more than 805,000 turbine blade inspections annually. Over the coming years we can expect this to increase by hundreds of thousand of blades. In addition, the inspections must be carried out at a higher frequency during the initial year of operation. This is then followed by a detailed inspection, which is needed because undetected damage can reduce the energy generation capacity, and even lead to the loss of the entire blade.

According to the report, the inspections can be carried out using commercial drones, piloted by professional operators, with the results having a much higher degree of resolution than is possible from the ground. As well as this, the costs are lower and there is a lower level of risk for the inspectors. However, this does not mean that one method will completely replace the other, and as far as land based turbines are concerned, they will play a complementary role. Although for off-shore wind turbines they could become the standard method of inspection.

The reason for the increasing interest has to do with the evolution of the drones themselves, including more rotor blades for better wind stability, longer battery lifespan, resulting in longer periods of operation and sharper optics allowing more detailed observations. Data analysis systems for automated photographic analysis has also been assigned an increasingly important role in the report.