Drones and crawling robots outfitted with special scanning technology could help wind blades stay in service longer, which may help lower the cost of wind energy at a time when blades are getting bigger, pricier and harder to transport, Sandia National Laboratories researchers say.
From an article in Phys.org.
As part of the Department of Energy’s Blade Reliability Collaborative work, funded by the Wind Energy Technologies Office, Sandia researchers partnered with energy businesses to develop machines that noninvasively inspect wind blades for hidden damage while being faster and more detailed than traditional inspections with cameras.
“Wind blades are the largest single-piece composite structures built in the world—even bigger than any airplane, and they often get put on machines in remote locations,” says Joshua Paquette, a mechanical engineer in Sandia’s wind energy program. “A blade is subject to lightning, hail, rain, humidity and other forces while running through a billion load cycles during its lifetime, but you can’t just land it in a hanger for maintenance.”
Routine inspection and repair, though, is critical to keeping these megablades in service, Paquette says. However, current inspection methods don’t always catch damage soon enough.
Sandia is drawing on expertise from avionics and robotics research to change that. By catching damage before it becomes visible, smaller and cheaper repairs can fix the blade and extend its service life, he says.
In one project, Sandia outfitted a crawling robot with a scanner that searches for damage inside wind blades.
In a second series of projects, Sandia paired drones with sensors that use the heat from sunlight to detect damage.
Inspecting, repairing wind blades in the field presents big challenge
Traditionally, the wind industry has had two main approaches to inspecting wind blades, Paquette says. The first option is to send someone out with a camera and telephoto lens. The inspector moves from blade to blade snapping photos and looking for visible damage, like cracks and erosion. The second option is similar but instead of standing on the ground the inspector rappels down a wind blade tower or maneuvers a platform on a crane up and down the blade.
“In these visual inspections, you only see surface damage,” Paquette says. “Often though, by the time you can see a crack on the outside of a blade, the damage is already quite severe. You’re looking at a very expensive repair or you might even have to replace the blade.”
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