Worker safety is paramount when working with something like offshore wind turbines, which is why GWO courses are so important in the industry, however, there’s something on the horizon that looks to limit the level of danger turbine engineers have to be put in and it’s decidedly drone-shaped.
Unmanned aerial drones are becoming big business and what were once just recreational pieces of tech are being given more and more roles in industry, especially as the technology becomes more streamlined and the costs of operating them fall.
There are currently 171,000 registered drones in the US, but experts predict this number to have increased by half a million by the year 2020.
In difficult terrains, such as an offshore wind farm, keeping an eye on the condition of infrastructure is not an easy task, and as well as the risks it can put on human life, its financial cost is also a limitation, and where any costs can be brought down on the generation of wind energy, the value and therefore support for it increases.
Now, according to figures from Bloomberg in the US, the use of drones is bringing down the cost of turbine inspection dramatically. Their figures find that the traditional cost of inspection per year sits at $2,481, which falls as much as $1,364 using a third-party drone service or $1,096 using an in house drone team. This equates to reducing the cost to produce electricity by one per cent.
The relative ease of a drone-led operation also means that there is more opportunity to spot the risk of significant failures, which again make cost-savings as downtime is limited, keeping production underway.
It’s a significant saving, especially for a technology which is in its youth and has its limitations. For example, regulation in the US dictates that drone pilots must remain in the line of sight of their drones. Heavy equipment for industrial use, such as batteries, also limit flight time to small bursts of 20 minutes or so.
As adoption of the technology is in its infancy, it does also still fall largely to third party operators, who also may not be tailored as exactly to the needs of the offshore wind industry. As more wide-spread adoption occurs, you can expect more companies to invest in the upfront costs of drone acquisition as well as drone pilot training, which will bring down the costs of inspections even further int he long run.
As technology improves - drones are surely set to do more in the industry. Artificial intelligence undoubtedly has a role to play in the future of this technology, and while drones are currently limited to observational roles, adaptations to include probes, grabbing arms and sensitive sensors could see them handle minor faults, reducing the need for human interaction on turbines which could put human life at risk, or is minor enough not to warrant the full attention of human expertise.
Drones that can fly for longer and can be operated remotely or have agency of their own will undoubtedly transform this sector in years to come.