Correlation is not necessarily causation. But when it comes to blades, it is.
The number one driver of growth in wind power is the advancements in composite materials allowing for the increasing enlargement of rotor blades – light enough to rotate, strong enough to withstand 25 years of bursting gusts. Already reaching over 200m in diameter they harvest a lot more wind, which in turn justifies the installation of big and efficient generators to ultimately deliver the MWh goodies.
The secret sauce is the blades then, and they are getting bigger as turbines become taller, more remote and more numerous. All else being equal, new 6-7MW on-shore models produce 5 times as much as an average 2MW machine installed in Europe currently. If we look at offshore turbines, the ratio doubles. Straight off, this suggests that every single turbine, and by extension its 3 specific blades are now financially strategic. This means that anomalies and damages resulting from fatigue, impact, lightning, corrosion, manufacturing and environmental degradation, along with the related downtime and repairs - all need to be efficiently managed and kept to a minimum.
Enter predictive maintenance: Put simply, if you identify the problem on time, you can fix it before it escalates. The question then looms, how to identify a problem? Or in rotor-blades lingo - how to perform blade inspections? The increasingly common way to inspect blades is via manned drone.
While the drone itself may have various levels of flight automation, and perhaps even automation in identification of its objectives, it still needs to be trucked or shipped to site, it needs to be supervised during operation technically and by regulation, and it needs to have its batteries switched by a person. That person needs to be lodged in a hotel during the nights of the campaign, transported back and forth, paid, scheduled, tendered for, and H&S measures need to be applied. And if the weather turned against you, all of the above would have been in vain.
The inescapable fact is that these activities and the costs associated, must all be repeated, if and when additional, unexpected, unbudgeted inspections are needed. But much worse still, the low availability and frequency of human-dependent solutions, especially given the size and location of modern fleets, are unlikely to identify the forming of damages as these intensify in the day-in-day-out battle with the elements.
So what if we take the person out of the equation? This is where First Airborne’s Resident Airborne Services platform comes in. The aircraft would then operate automatically without human support and would be stationed on site permanently within its own Nest. The Nest acts as a charging station as well as a safehouse between missions.
This would result in high frequency, high availability inspections at virtually no marginal cost.
How? It turns out robots are not that particular about hotels and other amenities, other than a standard electricity socket of course! Across an entire wind farm, a resident robot would bring down the cost of inspections dramatically. Better yet, it would reduce the cost of repairs as operators, who were previously clinging to shreds of outdated data and pinned down by budget constraints, will now be free to predict. The robot will have helped to increase profits by transforming its masters into prophets.