Wind energy: Robots to carry out turbine inspections

Inspecting wind turbine blades is a time-consuming part of operating a wind farm and not always exact given that many inspections are carried out from the ground. The ability to send robots to the top of these increasingly bigger structures to monitor the blades is clearly attractive and two companies believe they may have found a way to turn this into reality.

Wind turbines are growing bigger and bigger – the diameter of their rotor blades could soon reach 180 meters, and the greater the size, the greater the potential for something to go wrong. An inspector generally examines a turbine blade from the ground, about 100 meters away, using a high-power telescope. GE Global Research in partnership with US-based International Climbing Machines (ICM) has developed a way that a remote-controlled, robotic device can carry out this work. According to GE, the robot would scale the wind tower with a wireless, high-definition video camera strapped to its back.

This would allow an inspector with two-feet safely on the ground to have a real-time view of the blades from less than 10 meters away, allowing for a more thorough examination and evaluation of their condition, says GE. Engineers would therefore be able to diagnose and repair any problems more quickly, thereby reducing the risk of failure or forced down-time of the turbine.

This new technology was recently tested at a wind farm inTexaswith positive results, according to GE, which says that using the robotic device would also mean that inspections would no longer have to be delayed due to poor lighting or weather conditions.

The good maintenance of wind turbines is key for the industry to show the efficiency of wind power as an alternative to fossil fuels and its role as a key renewables technology for the future. Reducing the downtime of turbines through the use of new technology is therefore essential. Moreover, this is an area that can be a real source of growth and jobs, and capable of providing a boost to the flagging EU economy.

The report “Green growth – the impact of wind energy on jobs and the economy” published by EWEA in April, highlighted that as the installed capacity of wind grows, “there is a progressive increase in operation and maintenance jobs”. This was highlighted by the growth of expenditure related to employees in this sector across the EU from €0.64 billion in 2007 to €0.82 billion in 2010. Likewise, the number of jobs in the services sub-sector, including personnel working in operation and maintenance reached 43,779 in 2010, said the report.

 By Philippa Jones,