Start-up using drones to inspect wind turbines in South Africa

South African drones-as-a-service provider, Integrated Aerial Systems have added their voice behind the use of drone technology for inspection operations, having personally tried them on wind turbines recently on the coasts of Cape Town.

One of the biggest benefits of drone technology in today’s industrial operations is how it has made safe job that previously made humans cringe at the prospect of undertaking.

Over the years power utility, cell tower and related industry engineers have had to physically climb some dizzying heights to check power lines and cell tower infrastructure. Helicopter pilots having to summon all their piloting dexterity during the stringing sessions of power cables.

It is dangerous work; one that humans could certainly do without. Inspectors or window cleaners in buckets or strapped with ropes and suspended so high in the sky are usually not a pretty sight.

According to IAS, it is the same with wind turbine inspection. With the world turning to sustainable energy, the smart people working on finding the ways in which the human race can clean up the earth discovered that wind can be a really useful source of energy; so wind turbines were born (although we wonder whether Charles F Brush was thinking about the welfare of the earth at all when he made the first modern wind turbine in 1887).

In South Africa, power producers have sunk at least $5.6billion into wind turbines, which are mainly dotted along the coasts of the Cape provinces.

Being an outdoor feature that relies on wind speed, the turbines obvious sustain wear and tear from having chosen to withstand the wind as a career path. They also suffer from hail and other weather elements; hence the need for operators to keep checking their status now and again.

“Traditionally, there are two methods of wind turbine inspection: Rope Access and Ground-Based Inspection,” the Cape Town-based start-up said yesterday. “Rope access can be dangerous and takes time (up to six hours per turbine) this doesn’t even include safety checks and preparation.

“It has a high-risk factor and the insurance costs make it expensive. Ground-based inspections often produce low quality results and can be very time consuming.”

As a result of the safety and financial costs associated with traditional inspections, IAS have been trying another tack in the Cape.

“With turbine repair being expensive, coupled with the loss of revenue from days of inactivity due to damage, early inspection and analysis are essential,” the company says. “This is where drone-based inspections have the edge. Working together with the latest software solutions available, drone technology can provide a local and complete service to the South African Wind Market.

Drone at work…

“Using machine learning, LiDAR and intelligent flight systems, we are able to safely and quickly inspect a wind turbine in under 30min. This ensures downtime is kept to an absolute minimum and maintenance reports (signed off by blade inspection engineers) are produced within a week.”

And with thousands of flying hours, the IAS says its team has been professionally trained for aerial wind turbine inspection to ensure an efficient and professional operation.

Besides, as effective as a drone can be while it stays steady in the air to snap away aerial images of the blades to be analysed, either on the spot for signs of visible wear and tear, or later in front of a computer; the efficiency becomes way greater when the drone is mounted with a thermographic camera, which will be able to detect deeper hidden defects and problems like corrosion and location of objects in dark places.

“Under normal circumstances, the drone inspection itself is quickly finished,” says Ronni Bing Simonsen, Engineer NDT Services at Danish international technological consulting and service company, FORCE Technology, which has been in the game a bit longer than IAS. “The heavy workload lies in the analysis of the collected data, and the pictures taken by the drones. It is essential here to enlist relevant experts in analysis to obtain the full value from a drone inspection. Someone lacking the necessary qualified experience may overlook a critical defect or fault, possibly with fatal consequences.”

To buttress the IAS’s and other drone technology proponents’ claims, an analysis released last week by consulting firm Frost & Sullivan found that the deployment of drone and other digital technologies advancements have drastically changed solar and wind farm inspections by enabling access to the required data and helping with visualisation, ensuring process, performance, and resource optimisation.

The report forecasted that an expected boom in wind and solar photovoltaic power capacity to an estimated 6.90 gigawatts and 10.80 gigawatts respectively by the end of this year; following a COVID-19-induced disruption in 2020; was going to drive digital technology demand in the wind and solar inspection market

As a result, the demand for digital technologies such as augmented reality/virtual reality (AV/VR), big data, drones, robots, digital twin, etc., will gain momentum worldwide. Frost and Sullivan says.

“With the lockdown and social distancing measures imposed recently, it is difficult to dispatch experts into the field,” said Weihao Hung, TechVision Research Analyst at Frost & Sullivan. “This leads to the increasing adoption of digitalised inspection approaches in the solar and wind farm inspection space. Further, compared to traditional human-based inspection, advanced digital technologies offer inexpensive surveying through advanced photography and accurate measurement.

“Characterised by object tracking, self-navigation, and inspection in real-time without human intervention, drones and robots equipped with advanced imaging cameras and sensors empowered by deep-learning computer vision will take centre stage in the next three years. Additionally, market participants’ move to develop the software and hardware to provide new functionalities addressing solar and wind farm inspection challenges will result in enhanced business values and competitive advantages for them.”

Article has been updated to include research analysis by Frost & Sullivan


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