Drone inspections take off after new US rules support O&M gains

Orders for Aairteam’s remote inspection products have exploded since the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) eased legislation on commercial drone use earlier this year, Grant Leaverton, General Manager of the company told Wind Energy Update.

Airfusion's Windspect in action

Texas-based Aairteam conducts remote Unmanned Aerial Vehicle flights for inspection and survey, in particular for live transmission towers, oil and gas refinery stacks, buildings, bridges and wind turbines.

“[Wind] asset owners are beginning to realize that a blade issue exists in the industry and that a new technology is now available to help combat the issue,” Leaverton said.

Under a new policy announced in March, the FAA streamlined the authorisation process for drone flight aircraft that weigh less than 55 pounds and fly at or below a height of 200 feet during daytime hours.

According to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), more than 20 industries in 48 states have already qualified for the rules.

The supportive legislation comes at a time of increasing competition in operations and maintenance of wind farms.

“Drones open the door to effective preventative maintenance of wind assets by making routine inspections cost effective and safer for our human assets,” Leaverton said.

“What really drives the value proposition is a drone’s ability to collect a higher quality of actionable data that can be leveraged by an owner,” he said.

Uncovering damage

In one recent example, Aairteam completed a full site aerial blade inspection for a client and uncovered a handful of damage findings which, if left unchecked, could have turned into potentially catastrophic failures.

The turbine operator had neither the staff nor the expertise to perform comprehensive inspections themselves, but were able to mitigate the risk of unplanned failures by using drones.

AirFusion, a Massachusetts-based drone and analytical inspection software company, also expects significant demand growth in the drones market.

“We see significant demand and interest in deploying our solutions worldwide,” Kevin Wells, Chief Strategy Officer at AirFusion, said.

AirFusion’s product, WindSpect, integrates Strat Aero’s inspection-grade hexacopters with AirFusion’s Wind Edition Inspection software and analytics to increase the efficiency of the inspection.

According to AirFusion, the latest drone usage guidelines issued by the FAA earlier this year have created a reasonable framework for operating drones and will result in a much safer and more business-friendly environment for core UAV technology.
“We believe we will see a major uptick in commercial usage of drones in the coming year,” Wells said.

Man versus Machine

Drones add value in several ways. They can be deployed in minutes so they can reduce downtime of the asset significantly when flown by an experienced professional. A full inspection of all three blades on a turbine stack can take as little as 45 minutes.

The enhanced level of data collected by drones can be readily made into an actionable set of data, allowing operators to optimize their budgets by prioritizing their repairs and better forecasting their future spend.

Traditional manned inspections involve rope and harness methods or manual crane use and therefore come with some risk to workers. There are some advantages to manual inspections, for instance, rope access and platform inspections allow a technician to make smaller repairs on the spot.

Further advances in robotics will continue to impact turbine outage periods, as well as reporting and insurance premiums, with the potential for in-use inspections.

“The advances in robotics and sensors are fast and furious and there could be a day in the not too distant future where swarms of sensor-equipped drones inspect wind turbines while they are still spinning,” said Wells.

“Sense and avoid” technology in drones can prevent them from impacting a blade or tower, saving on personal injury insurance claims by greatly reducing the number of man hours at altitude on a harness.

Future insurance

In order for drones to provide insurance premium benefits, they must demonstrate that their effective use and analytical software, coupled with remedial action, leads to lower frequency and severity of claims.

GCube, a renewable energy insurance specialist, is working with Renewable Energy Loss Adjusters (RELA) to implement drone technology in cases where there is particular concern over blade failure.

This tends to be in markets where there are lengthy lead replacement times as well as known blade failure issues.

“This is based on a framework agreement with two drone companies and our proprietary claims data, which includes failure rates by OEM, location and age,” Jatin Sharma, Head of Business Development at GCube, told Wind Energy Update.

When it comes to drones being used for turbine and parts warranty claims for wind farm operators, Sharma said that drones could effectively provide a more thorough data source for root cause analysis.

“This is particularly useful where there are disputes regarding force majeure declared by OEMs, where the issue may actually be design or installation related,” he said.

AirFusion has had a number of recent conversations with wind farm owners and investors that indicated strong interest in cost effective due diligence solutions for a number of reasons.

In-warranty maintenance inspections are also a big topic of discussion.

“The liability these OEMs carry is enormous. Having a solution to keep their customers [aware] about routine maintenance was seen as a crucial advantage in lowering end of warranty claims,” AirFusion said.

Grant Leaverton of Aairteam