By Power engineers inside a wind turbine

Everyone was wowed earlier in the year when Aerones released some amazing footage of its drones de-icing the blades of a wind turbine. Eye-catching and exciting as this was, what it really signalled was that Industry 4.0 has arrived in the wind sector.

Drone maintenance is already starting to make a big impact elsewhere in the energy industry. Shell uses drones to inspect flaring stacks at some of Europe’s biggest gas plants and to check gas-safety levels at natural-gas terminals. So as the push for more renewable energy sources continues, it seems fitting that the wind sector is up next for the data-based maintenance revolution.

Wind turbines are often located in remote, hostile environments, so an effective proactive maintenance strategy is key to minimising unnecessary human-machine intervention and reducing costs and safety hazards - and drone technologies can help to achieve this. We take a look at how:

1. By making turbine inspections easier, safer and faster

Companies are already using drones to inspect and carry out testing in a way that’s faster and less risky, even in extreme environments. And in combination with artificial intelligence, drones can foster a data-led approach to maintenance.

With the latest AIs processing thousands of images while the drone is still in the air, engineers can fault find faster with greater accuracy, without exposing themselves to harsh weather conditions or unnecessary risks.  The combination of stable and sophisticated airborne drones with AI and advanced wind farm analytics is set to revolutionise turbine maintenance.

2. Carrying out routine maintenance tasks

Applying a repair to the right point of a 116-foot blade that’s 300 feet up in the air is never an easy proposition for a human engineer. Now tape developer 3M is teaming up with drone specialists Camp Six Labs to develop drones that can apply tape, while the operators keep their feet on the ground. 

3. Deliver heavy payloads

The Griff 350 can deliver payloads of up to 330lbs. These heavy-duty drones can greatly simplify the task of getting tools and equipment to the right part of the turbine, making maintenance of even the tallest wind turbines easier and cutting the risk of injury.

4. To fight turbine fires

Fire is one of the leading hazards in the wind-power industry. And fire fighting in remote locations at high altitudes can be extremely challenging. Using specialised fire-fighting drones, crews can be on site and take effective action faster than ever before.

It is clear that technologies such as drones are bringing a plethora of new and more efficient ways to tackle maintenance challenges. But to achieve the potential savings attainable, it is essential is that this is paired with complimentary measures such as proper equipment lubrication.

A recent Shell Lubricants survey1 showed that 73% of power industry professionals thought using Industry 4.0 technologies would lead to fewer equipment breakdowns, so we can see there is engagement with moving the industry forward. However, as these technologies become more commonplace, lubrication must remain a crucial part of the maintenance regime as 43% admitted often experiencing breakdowns as a result of ineffective lubrication.

The use of high quality lubricants is vital to helping minimise downtime and increasing wind turbine output, and at Shell, our specialists work closely with customers to ensure that they have not only the product, but that they are provided with the training and expertise they need to better handle lubricant products to optimise operations.

By combining the best possible consumables and components with emerging technologies, AI fault-finding engines, and intelligent sensors using big data to connect, the industry will be able to improve wind turbine efficiency just as demand for wind power booms.

1 This survey, commissioned by Shell Lubricants and conducted by research firm Edelman Intelligence, is based on 350 interviews with power sector staff who purchase, influence the purchase or use lubricants / greases as part of their job across 7 countries (USA, China, India, Germany, Russia, Indonesia and the UK) from March to April 2018. For more information, please visit www.edelmanintelligence.com

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