Malek Murison explains how a Latvian drone startup is repurposing consumer technology to provide critical infrastructure maintenance.
Aerones made headlines last year when one of the Latvian company’s drones was used to assist in a skydive. The move was a publicity stunt to attract attention to Aerones’ drone technology and its potential applications.
Using drones for turbine maintenance
Among those applications is wind turbine maintenance, a huge potential market for drone operators, considering the scale (and often remoteness) of the structures, and the global push towards renewable energy.
Ice and dirt can reduce the output of wind farms. To tackle this problem, Aerones has developed a drone-assisted method for cleaning turbine blades and removing ice.
This means that instead of simply providing damage or maintenance assessments via drones, the company is now able to offer an all-in-one service that uses aerial technology to keep wind farms operating efficiently.
According to the International Energy Agency, minimal icing can cut annual energy production by up to five percent, while severe icing can lead to annual losses of over 20 percent.
Aerones’ service, says the company’s website, “aims to provide an effective, practical and economical alternative for cleaning the wind turbine blades using machinery adapted to the needs [of the task at hand].”
Drones are already widely used to inspect infrastructure across the renewable energy sector, including the use of thermal and LIDAR imaging to keep solar farms running at maximum output.
Just as in the solar industry, maintenance costs tend to be thrown in with the total costs of operations. Current de-icing methods rely on either manned teams or expensive blade technology to prevent ice from forming in the first place.
At best, these methods are expensive, at worst they put maintenance crews in danger. Depending on the size of the blades and the weather conditions, Aerones claims to be able to clean or de-ice 30 blades – usually 10 turbines – in a single day.
The commercial and public safety applications for Aerones’ technology extend far beyond the skydive that first drew attention to the startup.
As well as offering maintenance services to wind farms, Aerones’ drone technology is ideal for industrial cleaning missions and even assisting firefighters.
The company’s 28-propeller drone is tethered to a power and water or de-icing source on the ground, allowing it to stay airborne indefinitely up to 400m and push liquids out at 200 bars of pressure.
Internet of Business says
The full potential of drones in engineering, maintenance, critical infrastructure monitoring, or hazardous environments has become clear over the past two years.
Much traditional maintenance of the built environment is slow, expensive, and often dangerous. For example, it may take weeks of work just to put up scaffolding around a building or bridge in order to inspect it; drones could strip away those time and financial costs.
Wind turbines, along with offshore oil and gas installations, are the low-hanging fruit in the market, because their remote locations mean that aviation authorities are more tolerant of unmanned or remote-controlled systems flying in the area.
Southampton University is one of several UK organisations looking at these applications. Related startups such as Callen-Lenz and FlyLogix are already capitalising on the emerging interest in this field.