Robotics to the Rescue?: The future of automation technologies in wind energy

The future of automation technologies in wind energy

With the world rapidly moving to­war­ds net zero emissions and mee­ting global climate commitments, the re­newable energy sector is witnessing tremendous growth. The year 2021 is ex­pec­t­ed to witness the fastest year-on-year growth in renewable power gene­ration since the 1970s, with the ma­jo­rity of the contribution coming from wind power. As per the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC), about 743 GW of wind power was installed globally by the end of 2020, of which on­shore wind accounted for 707 GW. An estimated 93 GW was installed in 2020 alone, representing a 53 per cent increase with respect to installations in 2019.

Despite such growth, the GWEC has fo­re­cast an annual average onshore installation of at least 79.8 GW over the next five years to meet the global climate co­m­mitments. Furth­er, over 180 GW of wind en­ergy would be required to be installed annually, in order to meet the target of net zero. The wind energy sector can, thus, anticipate greater expansion in the coming years.

In the backdrop of the 60 GW wind energy target by 2022, India is actively ad­vancing in wind energy installations. As per the REN 21 Global Status Report 2021, India holds the fourth position globally for the total wind generation capacity. However, it experienced its lowest annual addition in 2020, dropping from fourth to tenth position globally, in terms of annual capacity additions. A total of 1.1 GW of wind capacity was added in 2020, all from onshore wind farms. This has brought India’s total installed wind portfolio to 38.6 GW. However, India’s wind sector is also facing several challenges in terms of grid connection, intermittency of power, land acquisition and construction delays. These challenges have been further exacerbated by the pandemic, due to a fall in the supply of labour and limitations in mobility.

Research and development in artificial in­telligence (AI) and related technologies has helped in addressing these challeng­es. Drone and robot technologies have been introduced in order to provide mobility, safety and operations and maintenan­ce (O&M) solutions, leading to more efficient utilisation of wind energy. These te­ch­nologies are now becoming a necessary pathway for countries to meet renewable energy targets and address the associated challenges worldwide.

Moving away from traditional O&M practices

Traditional approaches to O&M in the wind energy sector require human interve­ntion, which may be costly and time consuming. Many a time, a particular segme­nt of the wind plant may not be accessible to humans or would be potentially dangerous to reach. Furthermore, transportation costs may be very high to enable hu­m­an-based O&M of wind farms. Human inspections may also be subject to many errors. As a result, drone and robotic technologies are being rapidly developed to provide mobility solutions and save both time and costs.

The use of drones, robots and AI is one of the most significant additions to technological developments in the wind energy sector. According to the “Advancements in Di­gi­tal Technologies for Solar and wind Farm Inspection” report by Frost & Sulli­van, the use of robots and drone technologies in solar and wind energy farms is expected to rise in the coming years. The expected growth may be aggravated in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has created tremendous limitations for tech­ni­cians and equipment to reach farm sites.

A study by Frost & Sullivan has estimated that the market for drones in the power sector is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 23.6 per cent by 2030, with an outlay of $515 million. The drone technology segment may sustain this growth, given the continued and increasing adoption of drones being un­dertaken to make wind power O&M more robust. At present, North America is at the forefront of utilising these technologies in power utilities. Countries in Asia Paci­fic and South Asia are in the process of esta­blishing a regulatory framework required to adopt these technologies in the energy sector. While the current adoption rate of drones is less than 10 per cent globally, it is expected to rise due to the benefits it provides in terms of safety, reliability and mobility.

Applications of drones and robots

Drones and robotic technologies are eq­uip­ped with advanced sensors and imaging devices, which present an array of utilities for wind farms. Drones are primarily used for the inspection and observation of wind farms. They rapidly capture images of various points of the wind plant, which may not be easily approachable by huma­ns. Subsequently, AI tools capture potential problems identified in the data collected. This is becoming a time-efficient form of data collection and wind farm inspection. The concept of nested drones is also gaining attention. This entails a charging station of the drone, “the nest”, to be kept at the offshore or onshore wind turbine site. The drone can conduct inspection on command and return to the nest to enable transfer of data. Nested drones will lead to more autonomy as the wind utility will not depend on a drone vendor’s sche­dule to conduct inspection. Therefore, this will be the next step in providing greater automation and flexibility in wind energy operations. The possibility of repair using dron­es is also being explored.

Robots, on the other hand, primarily perform maintenance tasks, remote inspection and troubleshooting. Many remote wind turbines are located in areas with harsh weather conditions. Robots can be used in these areas to provide greater en­ergy security through improved and regular maintenance. This technology is still un­­der development, with more ad­van­ce­me­nts being tested. Crawling robo­ts have recei­v­ed immense attention in recent mon­ths. These robots are capable of carrying out cleaning and polishing of wind turbines and other minor repairs.

A wind blade may undergo significant dis­­turbances such as lightning, hail stor­ms, humidity and other natural ex­tre­mi­ties throughout its life cycle. This has fur­ther increased the need for regular observation and maintenance. However, the sheer size of wind blades, along with large transpo­rtation costs, may not allow regular main­te­n­ance through human in­terventions alo­ne. Robots are increasingly playing a facilitative role in this regard. They are fitted with special scanning technology for more accurate ins­pec­tion, which can enable a longer operational lifespan for wind plants, thereby cutting O&M costs.

Potential challenges for adoption

Advancements in drones and robots hold immense promise for the future of the po­w­er and utilities sector. Yet, there are several potential challenges that need to be addressed in order to effectively establish and utilise these technologies. For instan­ce, wind farms may witness extremely high winds. As a result, controlling and op­e­rating drones may become a difficult pro­cess. Another potent challenge is the threat of data breach and cybersecurity. Drones may be able to capture sensitive data that can be misutilised if adequate security software is not put in place. Lack of supporting software to enable tra­ns­fer of data accurately in a timely manner from drones to human operators is another limitation. System integration is also ne­e­d­ed in order to streamline the entire pro­cess, starting from data collection to data analysis. Additionally, capacity building and trai­ning required to operate these te­ch­no­logies may be insufficient at present, especially in the developing countries. The physical cost of drones and ro­bots itself may be another limiting factor for developers in adopting them.

Therefore, market players must develop digital platforms that integrate physical drones and robotic applications with software, in order to undertake comprehensive inspection and maintenance. Finan­cial assistance may be provided to developers in the initial stages to boost greater adoption of drones. Knowledge transfer and greater research can also go a long way in ensuring that these technological solutions are used to their best potential.

Future outlook

Despite the pandemic-induced decline in the demand for fuels in 2020, the year saw an overall rise in the global wind power capa­city by 14 per cent over that in 2019, am­ou­n­ting to roughly 743 GW, according to the REN21 Global Status Report 2021. As countries continue to rapidly build their renewable energy portfolio to meet their global commitments and limit their carbon emissions, one can expect greater development in the wind energy segment.

According to the National Institute of Wind Energy, India, a viable global wind power potential is estimated to be 72 TW. This amounts to four times the total world energy demand. India has a wind potential of 695 GW, which is expected to rise as modern turbines witness further improvements. However, to harness such large-scale wind capacity effectively and efficiently, the ad­op­tion of automotive technologies may be­co­me crucial in the coming years. Reduc­ed dependence on hu­man intervention can improve the O&M of wind power plants with respect to better data quality, lower costs of inspection and more frequent che­ck-ups of wind turbi­nes, among others.

These technologies may be particularly advantageous in any potential future pandemics that may restrict mobility and human interaction. As the use of robots and drones for various aspects of O&M is still at its nascent stage, rigorous rese­arch is needed to ensure their reliability and accuracy. New innovations must be complemented by on-field research to build greater confidence among developers to adopt them. The provision of supporting software technology must be a key focus area. Finally, several countries including India need to establish a robust regulatory framework and policy environment that encourages and incentivises the deployment of drones and robots in the sector. In this context, incorporating these digital technologies can go a long way in transforming the landscape of the wind energy segment in the near future.