Infrared-vision ‘fireflies’ could transform turbine inspections

Drone technology combined with active thermography could offer faster, cheaper and more thorough inspection of wind turbine blades and aircraft wings.

Two Cambridge-based companies, Innvotek and Mapair, have successfully tested a drone system that uses infrared technologies and artificial intelligence to inspect composite structures, including wind turbines and airplane wings, for defects .

Firefly Inspect can hover over wind turbine blades and aircraft using a 1000W heat lamp to test for faults – the first time such a powerful heat source has been installed on a drone.

Firefly Inspect was originally a concept for inspecting aircraft wings while they are stationary in hangars. Through a collaboration with Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult, the technology has now been adapted to include the inspection of onshore and offshore wind turbines.

In recent trials at ORE Catapult’s National Renewable Energy Center in Blyth, UK, the drones demonstrated their ability to hover autonomously and maneuver close to vertically suspended wind turbine blades. The active thermography module allowed to capture the surface temperature variations of the blades when they are heated, revealing hidden imperfections that are not visible on the surface.

Aircraft wings and turbine blades are often made of lightweight composites that provide exceptional strength, density stiffness and flexibility. Exposure to extreme conditions can erode or pit these surfaces over time and regular inspections are necessary to prevent small flaws from becoming critical failures. Manual methods, where technicians scour structures for visible defects, are the status quo in both industries. However, robotics can offer a faster, more accurate and safer means of inspection.

Firefly Inspect’s ability to detect hidden structural defects and automatically locate their position using artificial intelligence will help operators make informed decisions to extend the life of composite components. Another innovation is the use of OptiTrack motion capture technology for navigation, avoiding reliance on GPS, which can be subject to signal interference at sea. This also allows for interior inspections (inside hangars planes) where the GPS does not work.

Development of the technology was jointly funded by Innovate UK and the National Research Council of Canada with additional support from Cranfield University, Université Laval and Canadian firm BI Expertise. The project (Multiple Robotic Inspection of Composite Aircraft Structures Using Active Thermography – MultiAcT) received the EUREKA label for its outstanding R&D achievements.

“Robotic technologies offer a range of health and safety benefits, while more regular and cost-effective inspections can reduce turbine downtime, but that’s not all,” said Andrew Macdonald , Director of Operations, ORE Catapult. “Offshore wind power is on the way to rapid expansion around the world. The sheer scale of operations, the oversizing of wind turbines and their deployment ever further from shore – all of these factors make human-led inspections cumbersome, risky and costly. UK developers like Innvotek have the advantage of being the first to create the robotic and digitized solutions of the future. »

Michael Corsar, Chief Technology Officer, Innvotek, added, “Successful testing is a major milestone in our overall development program. We are now looking to make improvements to the system as we move towards commercialization in the wind energy and aerospace sectors. There is enormous potential to reduce costs, improve security and generate critical data that will benefit integrity management for asset owners in these two industries.

Alex Williamson, director of Mapair, said: “The use of drones for asset inspection is now normal. However, new inspection techniques as well as increased autonomy are needed to ensure operating costs remain low while gathering more valuable information to make better decisions.”

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