Blade-walking robot transforming the wind sector

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<p><figcaption class=BladeBUG features suction feet that run over the surface of a blade (Image: BladeBUG)

Robotics in the wind industry is crucial for scaling up, transforming operations and maintenance and maximizing the lifespan of assets.

After a decade of development, BladeBUG, the six-legged, insect-like robot equipped with inspection probes and software, is ready to get to work walking on turbine blades to transmit real-time data for remote interpretation.

Around 36,000 wind turbine blades operate on the UK’s onshore and offshore wind farms, with thousands more in the pipeline. Global figures are eye-catching.

Every blade must be kept in top condition to ensure its integrity and longevity. A task that currently relies on the use of rope access technicians – an area where there is a critical skills shortage.

Automated inspection and repair of wind turbine blades, delivered by industry pioneer BladeBUG, would transform operations and maintenance.

Operators could safely achieve greater efficiency and accurate real-time data thanks to the intelligent scanning technology integrated into BladeBUG, combined with AI-based data analysis, while technicians can focus on other highly skilled tasks, says BladeBUG inventor and founder Chris Cieslek.

BladeBUG would also help create a more diverse workforce.

“There is no need for a robot operator to be on site,” says Chris. “They can be in a control center miles away and go home to their families every night. It offers opportunities for a much broader workforce that is not on a boat for three weeks, changing the dynamics and opportunities for people to work.”

Eastern Daily Press: BladeBUG inventor and founder Chris Cieslek

Eastern Daily Press: BladeBUG inventor and founder Chris Cieslek

BladeBUG inventor and founder Chris Cieslek (Image: BladeBUG)
Ten years of intensive research and development have led BladeBUG to move to commercialization with operator partners as it continues to evolve.

The path to sales revenue and market adoption will focus on the country first, with BladeBUG’s primary focus being on how efficiently it can collect data, how quickly and what it costs, and then focus abroad.

The robot, which weighs about 25 pounds and is the size of a small Labrador, with suction feet that run over the surface of a blade, is designed to be quick and easy to deploy and become part of a technician’s toolbox .

“One bag contained adjustable wrenches and the other contained the BladeBUG robot,” says Chris. “This sector is open to new technology and we will show that we can do great things. Fortunately, we have a number of asset owners who want to help us in that transition phase.”

It aims to have a global footprint with the ability to produce in the US to meet local content requirements, as well as in Europe and Asia. BladeBUG’s first commercial work in March 2024 took place on onshore turbines in Spain, and during recent field trials in France, BladeBUG collected data and sent it in real time to an expert 800 kilometers away for interpretation.

“People ask if BladeBUG is faster than a human. It’s faster, but the person who can interpret the data is not the person willing to use their skills to hang on a knife to obtain it. What BladeBUG can do is bring together a unique skill set with the robot that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

“What matters is the quality of this repetitive, reliable data. We provide a good path for data entry that can be used much more efficiently, because in theory there can be multiple robots in multiple locations providing one person’s real-time data. So it’s about efficiency and multiple occupancy levels.

“If you are a developer and you have 800 turbines in Britain with all different parts of different ages, then having a robot and an agreement to have one of our operators as part of the ‘tower team’ is a clear business case.”

BladeBUG’s potential to address skills shortages in the sector is also great.

“Recruiting and retaining skilled workers is the biggest barrier to progress in the UK offshore wind sector. BladeBUG isn’t about cutting jobs, it’s about helping the people who do this by taking the rope access part out of the job of an experienced technician.”

BladeBUG announced last June that it was partnering with FORCE Technology, using its custom NDT solution. The robot used ultrasonic NDT testing with an Olymous EMEA 0.5 MHz probe that collected multiple data sets, while an NDT expert remotely dialed in from his office 150 km away from the blade to verify the scans in real time.

East Anglia-based Dan Greeves recently joined the nine-strong team as Chief Commercial Officer, bringing his proven track record of bringing innovation to market in the wind industry, in addition to his expertise in offshore engineering and business development around the world.

Eastern Daily Press: Dan Greeves, Commercial DirectorEastern Daily Press: Dan Greeves, Commercial Director

Eastern Daily Press: Dan Greeves, Commercial Director

Dan Greeves, commercial director (Image: BladeBUG)
“The probes we use to perform NDT are the same probes that rope access technicians use to perform NDT testing,” said Dan. “The probes are mounted on the robot, so it’s exactly the same.

“Operators would not need more people as a wind farm grows. A wind farm portfolio can grow with the same workforce thanks to greater efficiency through robots.

“Data may be captured for operators at the time of delivery, before the end of the warranty, during a change of ownership or when a lifetime extension is being considered.”

Using BladeBUG for proactive and predictive maintenance prevents major repairs later, providing clear cost benefits, Dan says. Furthermore, placing a robot on a blade costs significantly less – and with less risk – than using rope access personnel.

“Drones are used to inspect knives. We know drones give you that visual image, but not what lies beneath. The proactive way to do this is to detect and fix a minor repair early, rather than letting it wait a year and cost ten times more, and for the price ten minor repairs could have been done.

“To me, from the perspective of an offshore engineer, it doesn’t make sense.”

The onshore version of BladeBUG is ready and the design is flexible to make changes as it evolves.

Chris concludes: “Onshore use is great for validating everything and then incorporating that into the offshore design.

“Drones are a good analogy for where we are now. People thought they were rubbish and not as good as the ground-based photographic system. Now they are de facto the default first port of call.

“It’s all part of getting the technology and business case accepted so that perception becomes the adopted norm.”

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