An $8 million cash injection for a little-known startup this month highlighted the growing importance of robotics in wind turbine operations and maintenance.
Ann Arbor, Michigan-based SkySpecs, which makes drone systems for wind farm inspections, gained the funding through a Series B financing round led by Statkraft Ventures with UL Ventures, Capital Midwest and previous backers Venture Investors, Huron River Ventures and others.
SkySpecs will use the cash to add greater intelligence to an autonomous system that the company says can carry out a full turbine rotor-blade inspection within 15 minutes, at the push of a button and with no additional human insight.
“This year we will enable owners to harness the power of the data collected by our automated drones in a platform that they can use to decide what to repair and when to repair it," said SkySpecs CEO Danny Ellis in a press release.
Alexander Kueppers, an investment manager at Statkraft Ventures, said SkySpecs is “the fastest-growing inspection company in the wind sector, making rotor blade inspections more precise and safe while keeping operations at a lower cost.”
SkySpecs claims to offer the only fully automated wind turbine blade inspection system on the market. Last year its drone systems carried out 3,600 turbine inspections across more than 70 wind farms in the U.S. and Europe.
However, it is far from the only drone company targeting turbine inspections in the wind industry.
The multinational conglomerate 3M, for example, is reported to have agreed to a partnership with drone system developer Camp Six Labs, to create a drone-based method of applying coatings to wind turbine blades.
And as pressure grows to cut wind operations and maintenance costs, other autonomous machine industries are moving into the sector.
Last November, for instance, a U.K. firm called ATAM Group received a £50,000 (USD $67,700) grant to develop a "robotic crawler" that can climb turbine towers and then use a camera and an electronic arm to check for blade damage.
In a press note, ATAM managing director Mark Loades described it as “a potentially revolutionary new concept for the renewable energy sector, with increased safety, productivity and cost efficiency.”
Chris Rogers, president of Denver, Colo.-based robot vendor Inspectorbots, said robots are particularly useful for internal blade inspections.
To carry out an inspection, the turbine is stopped with the blade in a horizontal position and an operator in the nacelle drives the robot from base to tip, he said. The robots have onboard lights and high-definition cameras to give the operator a live view of the inside of the blade.
Rogers said an internal blade inspection robot could cost between $10,000 and $20,000, “depending on which upgrades and options are required.”
Although the use of inspection bots is generally associated with cost reductions, one of the main reasons for using the machines is to improve worker health and safety.
In 2013, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work identified a range of potential hazards associated with interior blade inspections, including oxygen depletion, off-gassing from battery acids or volatile compounds, and exposure to biological toxins such as molds.
“In addition to risks linked to hazardous substances and lack of oxygen in confined spaces, further issues such as ergonomics and musculoskeletal disorders linked to awkward, static postures need to be taken into consideration,” said the agency in a report.
Against this backdrop, MAKE Consulting technology consultant Shashi Barla said drones could become an integral part of wind turbine operations and maintenance within the next four to five years.
Turbine makers were already using robots to improve the quality of blade manufacturing, he commented. For operations and maintenance, "drones are being explored in the wind market, especially for offshore," he said.
“A lot of companies, especially the owners who have a large asset base, are looking at these technologies to service the fleet. It becomes more prominent as markets move toward offshore because of the cost.”