Wind power is fast becoming a core element of the 21st century’s transition to a global carbon-neutral energy grid. Inspecting wind farms is crucial to ensure their smooth and efficient operation, and this article will explore the growing use of drones for this purpose.
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The Growth of Wind Energy and Wind Farms
Fossil fuel use for energy generation, transportation, and industry is a leading cause of climate change and global temperature rises. Addressing this challenge has become one of society's most prominent issues in the 21st century, with multiple legislations, summits and investments taking place each year.
Achieving a post-carbon economy requires new, clean energy generation technologies which meet the power needs of industry and society. Solar, wind, hydropower, and geothermal energy have emerged as key elements of the global energy mix. Their use has grown exponentially over the past few decades.
Technological innovation and economies of scale have been integral to the nearly fourfold increase in the share of wind power in the energy mix over the past decade. Today, wind power is one of the most resilient and cost-competitive energy generation technologies in the world.
While the renewable energy sector has seen record installation of wind farms in recent years, with 93 GW of new capacity installed in 2020 alone (a 53% year-on-year increase) current growth trajectory will not meet net-zero goals by 2050. A threefold increase in wind farm installation will be needed over the next decade.
In 2021, China generated almost 70% of wind power globally, making them the world leader in this technological sector. There are two types of wind power installation: onshore and offshore. While onshore technology still dominates capacity growth, offshore wind power is predicted to increase its market share in the coming years.
Conventional Wind Farm Inspection
Like any other technology, wind power requires regular inspection and maintenance to ensure it is working at optimal efficiency and avoid critical safety failures that impact workers and the financial health of wind farms. Turbines can either be physically inspected by workers or remotely on the ground.
Physical inspection of wind turbine blades and other elements is especially dangerous as wind turbines are massive structures. Environmental conditions such as high winds and the risk of fire present potential danger to life, and it can be difficult for workers to escape to safety.
Physical inspection is also costly and time-consuming, as labor costs are higher and technicians can only typically inspect one or two turbines a day. Despite inspecting equipment from the ground using cameras being safer and cheaper, it is still time-consuming and data quality, especially in fast-moving and shadowy areas, is poor.
The Advantages of Using Drones for Wind Farm Inspection
Drone use has seen an explosion in multiple industries over the past decade, and the benefits of this technology for the wind farm inspection sector have become apparent to professionals in the industry.
Preventive maintenance is essential for the financial health of wind farms and their ongoing optimal performance over their life span. A single turbine failure can set companies back several thousand dollars annually in spare parts and repairs.
Using drones to carry out inspections provides some key advantages over conventional methods. Their use for this application improves worker safety, efficiency, cost savings, and inadequate data quality, all critical challenges associated with traditional wind farm inspection.
Drones remove the need for workers to physically inspect turbines. They only need to climb a turbine once a fault or issue has been identified to carry out critical maintenance, saving asset managers significant amounts of money.
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As a result, worker safety is significantly improved, cutting down on unnecessary labor costs and vastly enhancing efficiency as multiple turbines can be inspected in less time than traditional methods. Drone inspection can be conducted in as little as 45 minutes, much faster than traditional inspection, which can take 3 - 6 hours.
Drones can be operated remotely, so in this respect, they are similar to ground-based photography inspection. Still, they can capture images and data on critical issues such as damage, corrosion, oil leaks, and fungal growth in better detail than conventional inspection.
Wind turbine hubs and nacelles have multiple areas that are difficult to safely and thoroughly inspect. Additionally, blades can be inspected safely and in intimate detail at multiple positions (12 o’clock, 6 o’clock, and fixed angle) from multiple angles, either on a manually controlled or pre-programmed route.
There are different advantages to inspecting blades in each of these three positions. In the 12 o’clock position, images can be captured with a clear background and there are no obstructions. 6 o’clock inspections offer better visual contact. Fixed angle inspection is extremely time and power efficient compared to other methods.
Commercial Perspective: DJI’s Wind Farm Inspection Drone Solutions
Technically, any drone can be used for wind farm inspection, but whilst consumer drones are cheap and easy to use, they generally do not meet the specific requirements of wind farm companies in terms of durability, flight time, flight safety, reliable ground charging stations, or data gathering capabilities.
Chinese drone manufacturer DJI’s commercial drone solutions have been designed with industries such as the wind power sector in mind. DJI’s products include the Matrice 210 RTK V2 and the Matrice 300 RTK.
DJI’s drone platforms were employed in 2017 in Athens, Greece, to inspect a 34.5 MW capacity wind farm, providing inspectors with vastly improved efficiency and cost and time savings.
DJI’s drones can be installed with multiple payloads and contain features such as high-definition zoom cameras, high-resolution thermal cameras, IP45 protection, and 360-degree obstacle avoidance systems. DJI’s drones can operate in inclement weather conditions, making them an all-round solution for wind turbine inspection.
Wind Farm Inspection Drones: A Growing Market
Other companies supplying commercial wind farm inspection drones include Iberdrola and ABJ Renewables. The market for reliable and durable drones in the industry will likely grow over the coming years as asset managers seek to leverage the benefits of improved efficiency, reduced costs, and safety that drones provide.
References and Further Reading
Froese, M (2018) How to choose the right drone to inspect your wind turbines [online] windpowerengineering.com. Available at: https://www.windpowerengineering.com/how-to-choose-the-right-drone-to-inspect-your-wind-turbines
Singh, I (2021) Drone Wind Turbine Inspections Improve Efficiency and Reliability at Greek Wind Farms. enterprise-insights.dji.com. Available at: https://enterprise-insights.dji.com/user-stories/wind-turbine-inspection-ids
Global Wind Energy Council (2021) Global Wind Report 2021 gwec.net. Available at: https://gwec.net/global-wind-report-2021/
International Energy Agency (2022) Wind Electricity: Technology Deep Dive iea.org. Available at: https://www.iea.org/reports/wind-electricity