Insect inspired robots are coming to fix the world’s wind turbines

WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

Wind turbines are popping up everywhere, but at over 40 storeys tall now they’re also getting more problematic to fix and maintain.

 

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The world of maintenance might sound dull, but when the aircraft of the future have autonomous robot snakes and cockroaches from Rolls Royce fixing them all of a sudden things get a little bit more interesting. And weird. Now, in another giant leap forward for robot bug-kind a company called BladeBUG in the UK have unveiled a bug-like robot that, like human wing walkers, performs “blade walks” along the blades of operational offshore wind turbines.

 

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“[The new robo-bugs] open the door to autonomous inspection and repair of wind turbines, improving the efficiency of the blades and reducing risk for rope access technicians,” said Chris Cieslak, founder and director of BladeBUG. “[Our robot] uses a patent-pending six-legged design with suction cup feet, which means each of the legs can move and bend independently. This is significant because it enables the robot to walk on the blade’s changing curved surface, as well as inside the blade, tower, or hub of the turbine.”

 

BladeBUG in action

 

Cieslak, a former wind blade designer and engineer, is well aware of the challenge that inspection and repair of wind turbines poses. This is no overengineered solution to a task that humans could easily carry out. Offshore wind will play a massive role in reaching net-zero targets for sustainable energy, but to achieve these targets, ever larger wind turbines, like these giant 40 storey tall ones from GE, are being built further and further from shore in increasingly deep waters.

 

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This poses a challenge for human technicians wanting to ensure they are properly maintained. Carrying out human inspection means shutting these turbines down for long periods of time and exposing technicians to harsh environments. The inspection is therefore a confounding mixture of both challenging and repetitive tasks. Perfect for robots, then. Not that it’s a totally easy task for them, however.

“Wind turbine blades are now being made at over 100 meters (330 feet) in length, and are aerofoil in shape for optimal performance,” Cieslak said. “This means the root of the blade has a wide circumference, but the tip is a very tight curve. It is particularly challenging for a robot to walk at these two extremes and, when you combine this with the harsh and exposed offshore environment, a robot has to be both capable of adhering to the blade and flexible enough to adapt to a changing shape.”

 

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After several prototype versions, the team developed the current version of the BladeBUG. Cieslak said that its hexapod design means that each of its six legs can move independently to conform to the changing curves of a blade. Each leg has multiple degrees for freedom, plus the aforementioned suction cups that are capable of supporting the weight of the entire robot as it clings to the composite blades like some Tom Cruise stunt in a Mission: Impossible movie.

“Following our first successful test walk on a blade, we will be carrying out further validation exercises over the next few months, and are planning on launching the robot to early adopters in 2021,” Cieslak said.

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