Development Complete of Innovative Technology for the Full Automation of Wind Turbine Blade Inspections With Drones
–Contributing to reduced inspection costs and increased uses of offshore wind power–
January 24, 2024
New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO)
Toshiba Energy Systems and Solutions Corporation
As part of the Cost Reductions for Offshore Wind Power Generation project of the Green Innovation Fund Projects subsidized by NEDO, Toshiba Energy Systems & Solutions Corporation (Toshiba ESS) is undertaking work to increase technological sophistication in the operation and maintenance of offshore wind turbines. Toshiba ESS has recently undertaken demonstration activities at the Sozu Wind System wind farm (Ainan-cho, Minamiuwa District, Ehime Prefecture, Japan) that belongs to Shikoku Wind Power Co., Ltd., and has completed its evaluation of the technology required for fully automated inspections of the blades of 15 MW class wind turbines using drones. As a result, on the horizon now are fully automated inspections in which an inspection drone detects, during flight, the position and orientation of a wind turbine and the resting position of its blades, and it also automatically tracks the turbine blades as they sway due to waves and wind and captures images of them. Toshiba ESS aims to complete the technology verification of fully automated inspection by February 2024.
Going forward, the commercialization of fully automated inspections for blades will enable regular inspections as well as emergency inspections to be performed when abnormalities are detected in wind turbine blades after a lightning strike or other such situations without the need to dispatch maintenance engineers to the turbine. This means that in addition to facilitating lower costs through a reduction in labor costs and the transport costs incurred to send maintenance engineers to turbines, it is anticipated that fully automated inspections will contribute to reduced inspection costs for and the increased installation of offshore wind farms, mainly floating wind turbines, given that the benefits they deliver include the ability to address the issue of labor shortages.
To achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, as much renewable energy as possible will need to be brought online. Offshore wind farms can be built in large numbers with low costs and can be expected to have a knock-on effect on the economy, so they are viewed as a trump card when it comes to making renewable energy the main source of power. Offshore wind farms have mainly been installed in Europe thus far, but rapid growth in the Asian market is forecast ahead of 2050. However, a large-scale adoption of offshore wind farms is considered to require the development of technology to achieve an advanced level of sophistication in operational maintenance, repairs, monitoring, inspections, and other elements of maintenance that account for more than 30% of total costs. A particular issue is that maintenance engineers with the skills necessary for working at sea are required given that offshore work is performed in harsh meteorological and maritime conditions that include strong wind and waves, in addition to vessels being required to actually reach turbines. These factors mean that it is more difficult to respond swiftly when compared to land-based wind farms.
Against this backdrop, NEDO has been working on the Innovative Offshore Wind Power Operation and Maintenance Project under the Green Innovation Fund Projects’ Cost Reductions for Offshore Wind Power Generation Project since FY2022. As part of this, Toshiba ESS is working on a project called Advancement of Operation and Maintenance With Remote Control and Automation, and Preventive Maintenance Through the Use of Digital Technology (this project*1) to develop technology that will enable low-cost maintenance for the floating offshore wind farms expected to be constructed henceforth. This technology includes drone-based automation of external inspections of wind turbines, robot-based remote internal inspections of nacelles*2, and a soundness analysis service for offshore wind turbines using sensing data.
One theme of this project is the drone-based automation of the external inspection of wind turbines, and Toshiba ESS is undertaking demonstration activities at the Sozu Wind System wind farm that belongs to Shikoku Wind Power Co., Ltd. In the activities, an inspection drone is used to detect the orientation of the nacelle and the stopping position of the blades from the position of the wind turbine while in flight. Along with this, Toshiba ESS has also performed a verification of elemental technology to achieve a fully automated inspection where a drone automatically tracks the wind turbine blades as they sway due to waves and wind and captures images.
In drone-based inspections thus far, the drone had to be manually moved in front of a wind turbine or to wherever the starting point was. However, due to success in identifying the orientation of the nacelle and the stopping position of the blades enabling automation of movement to the starting position, evaluation of the technology required for fully automated inspections has been concluded.
With these results, fully automated blade inspections are on the horizon for large 15 MW class wind turbines that are among the biggest in the world and are expected to be increasingly installed for offshore power generation.
3. Future plans
The verification to take place in February 2024 will confirm the feasibility of a fully automated inspection process where a drone captures images of the wind turbine while flying around it and recognizes the front and blade angle by simultaneously processing the images before autonomously surveying the wind turbine as opposed to the conventional technique of moving the drone by hand to a position where it can see all of the wind turbine before it then detects the orientation of the turbine.
If this fully automated inspection is commercialized it will enable regular inspections as well as inspections when abnormalities are detected in wind turbine blades after a lightning strike or other such incidents without the need to dispatch maintenance engineers to the turbine, thus reducing overall costs by cutting labor costs and the transportation costs incurred to send maintenance engineers to the wind turbine. It is also hoped that it will help deal with a shortage of maintenance engineers.
On the basis of the technology developed here, Toshiba ESS will aim to achieve a fully automated inspection of the exterior of a wind turbine using a drone by February 2024. Furthermore, by developing a system for remote internal nacelle inspections and providing a wind turbine soundness analysis service on Toshiba ESS’s energy IoT service TOSHIBA SPINEX for Energy*3, Toshiba ESS will aim to cut operation and maintenance costs for floating offshore wind turbines by 20%.
Through its subsidies to Toshiba ESS and other such organizations, NEDO is working to increase the level of technological sophistication in the operation and maintenance of offshore wind turbines, and to contribute to lower costs and an increased use of offshore wind farms with a focus on floating wind turbines.
- *1 This project
- Project name: Green Innovation Fund Projects /Cost Reductions for Offshore Wind Power Generation/Innovative Offshore Wind Power Operation and Maintenance Project/Advancement of Operation and Maintenance With Remote Control and Automation, and Preventive Maintenance Through the Use of Digital Technology
- Project period: FY2022–FY2023
- Project overview: Cost Reductions for Offshore Wind Power Generation
- *2 Nacelle
- A nacelle is comprised of a step-up gear box, a generator, a brake, a rotor shaft, and a main shaft. It is located at the top of the wind turbine tower and is connected to the blades by the rotor shaft and a hub.
- *3 TOSHIBA SPINEX for Energy
- TOSHIBA SPINEX Marketplace
4. For more information, please contact:
NEDO New Energy Technology Department Wind & Ocean Energy Group
Toshiba Corporation, Media Relations Office, Corporate Communications Div.
*To send an inquiry by email, please replace [*] with @ in the above email address.