Inspecting wind turbine blades using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

The Challenge

Regular inspection of turbine blades, towers and other components is the only way to ensure optimal and safe performance of wind turbines. However, traditional ways of manual inspection from the ground with simple visual examinations using binoculars, telescopes or telephoto cameras is becoming less and less viable as closer and repeatable inspections are needed to spot defects on larger, complex machines. Performing closer in-situ inspection of blades involves significant down-time, cost and risk associated with working at heights. ESB was keen to collaborating with other players in the energy sector to explore new technology as a way of addressing this challenge for its growing portfolio of wind farms in Ireland and UK.

The Solution

Sterblue, a French start-up company selected through the Free Electrons Programme, builds a platform for automatic inspection of industrial assets using off-the-shelf drones and artificial intelligence. From data capture to data analysis, the company covers the whole inspection process in one streamlined interface. This is a far superior method when compared to flying a drone manually and traditional inspections often carried out with binoculars and cameras. The inspections could also be undertaken throughout the Covid-19 pandemic in line with social distancing requirements.

ESB in partnership with Sterblue, deployed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) technology and AI data analytics at the ESB Mynydd y Betws Wind Farm in South Wales, UK, to achieve a high-speed and high-quality wind turbine visual inspection. Sterblue works on 3D complex automatic navigation around infrastructure and automatic data processing / visualisation. With this pilot, ESB has embraced the latest autonomous drone technology to improve safety, reduce costs and minimize inspection outage times.

The Benefits

Advancements in drone technology range, command and control, safety, automation and navigation will benefit ESB significantly by providing lower cost, flexible, better quality, more consistent and safer solutions to current manned helicopter operations. The data collected by the drones is analysed using cutting edge AI technology (4883 photos taken for 15 turbines) to provide a digital timeline of damage regression and will allow ESB to incorporate more advanced preventive maintenance techniques and predict lifetimes of related assets. ESB's partnership with Sterblue will revolutionize blade inspections by solving one of the top challenges that O&M teams face: generating timely, precise and easy-to-consume inspection data while simultaneously improving safety, minimizing down-time and labour-related expenses.

The Future

ESB recently announced that Sterblue has been awarded a long-term contract to complete independent inspections of turbine blades on its wind farms. The decision was taken following numerous positive trials and an extensive competitive tendering process. ESB has a growing portfolio of 26 onshore wind farms across Ireland and the UK. Through enhanced inspections, ESB can reduce down-time for wind turbines, generate clean energy more efficiently and reduce cost.