Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), commonly called “drones”, will play a greater role in wind turbine inspections according to a report recently published by Navigant Research. The report covers the 2015 – 2024 timeframe, a window in which drones are expected to play a strong supplementary role to current inspection techniques, including those used from the ground via binoculars of telephoto camera lenses, or up close by inspectors using abseiling rope access techniques.
At the start of 2015 there were about 268,550 commercial-scale wind turbines installed globally, totaling 327,381 MW of capacity. This amounts to more than 805,000 blades that must be inspected annually, not to mention the hundreds of thousands more blades expected to begin service in the coming years. Blades must be inspected with greater frequency in the first year of service, and they wear out over time as they develop chips and cracks. Early deterioration can reduce energy production potential; when left unchecked, such deterioration can cause total blade collapse.
According to the report, inspections conducted using commercial-grade drones flown by professional operators can provide higher-resolution results than ground observation alone, while costing less and presenting fewer risks to inspectors. The report makes clear that this use of drones will not entirely supplant more traditional techniques, but will serve a supplementary role in inspections of onshore installations, while becoming standard for inspections of offshore installations.
The evolution of drones to include multiple rotors for stability in wind, longer battery life for extended use, and sharper optics for more detailed observation has made the technology more useful in the context of turbine inspections. Noted in the report is the increasingly important role played by data analysis systems for automated photo analysis across entire fleets of turbine blades.
While sales of UAV equipment will represent the most visible aspect of the new inspection trend, the services provided by UAV inspection companies are expected to generate substantially greater income. By the end of 2020, the service side of the industry is expected to total nearly $1 billion globally, with sales of drones themselves totaling just under $200 million. By the end of the report’s forecast period, combined revenue of services and equipment is expected to reach $1.6 billion per year, with a cumulative 10-year total of nearly $6 billion.