Maintaining wind turbines is a critical but time-consuming business. Dedicated technicians must gather their gear, rope up and climb hundreds of feet above firm ground to inspect turbine blades and nacelles. “It’s a workout,” said Mike Bowman, an ultra-marathoner who leads sustainable energy projects at GE Global Research, after he climbed the 300-foot tower of GE’s new Ecorotr wind turbine in Tehachapi, Cal.
But help is on the way: unmanned aerial vehicles, a.k.a. drones. “We have been exploring the use of drones for all sorts of inspection areas,” Bowman says. “It’s pretty cool what you can do, especially with the auto-pilot type drones. The idea that you can get to very remote areas autonomously with pretty incredible visual access opens lots of opportunities.”
Lots indeed. With 270,000 wind turbines currently installed in the U.S., a dedicated operations and maintenance drone fleet could be a serious time and money saver for wind power companies.
Besides providing a high-res image feed, drones can also operate in some fairly nasty weather and seamlessly integrate their data with software analytics. The idea is getting so hot that the consulting firm Navigant Research believes that wind turbine drone sales and inspection services could grow into a $6 billion market by 2024.
GE Renewable Energy, one of the world’s largest wind turbine suppliers, recently used a UAV to shoot some dazzling, if dizzying, footage of GE turbines operating at GE’s testing facility in Tehachapi. Take a look.