How Drones Help Workers Inspect Wind Turbines
Last summer, at a wind farm close to Washington state’s southern border, an autonomous drone levitated 80 meters to the top of a wind tower and maneuvered along one of its blades. There, just near the tip, it detected a small gash — too small for the naked eye. Had it gone unrepaired, water and ice could have seeped in and frozen once the weather turned colder. That would have expanded the tear, causing more serious damage to the fiberglass blade.
Nearthlab, the Seoul-based company that designed the drone, had been hired to send its team to the wind park to inspect 132 towers. It says its drones use artificial intelligence and laser technologies to help pinpoint potential damage and reduce the chance of accidents during human inspections. The drones work quickly: They take 15 minutes to inspect a tower, compared with the day it takes a human technician to do the same using ropes and a harness. The towers have to be idled for the duration of the inspection, so the faster, the better.
Nearthlab’s drones use AI to navigate the wind towers. Once they reach the top, they take about a thousand photos of the blades and nacelle — which houses the turbine’s gearbox and brakes — to scan for potential defects and use laser technology to estimate the size and depth of any cracks. Once the images are saved on its servers, Nearthlab uses AI software to analyze the images and identify damage.