Drones may have a significant part to play in renewable energy, according to a new study, which found that drone-based maintenance services for wind turbines could amount to an industry worth nearly $6 billion (£4bn) in less than 10 years.
Colorado-based analysts Navigant Research, which focuses on emerging technologies, said it expected cumulative global revenue for wind turbine UAV sales and inspection services to reach that figure by 2024, with drones already gaining ground in this field, where they are proving “more than a novelty”.
Wind turbines, which typically stand hundreds of feet high, are in constant contact with the elements, and their blades require regular inspection to ensure they maintain efficient energy production, and to avoid the possibility of “catastrophic” blade collapse.
These inspections are currently carried out either from the ground, with limited effectiveness, or by access via ropes or platforms. Drones offer a middle option, Navigant said.
“Commercial-grade UAVs handled by professional operators can provide higher-resolution visual inspections than ground-based inspections,” the report explained. “They also provide an inspection that is quicker, easier, and less costly and risky than rope access techniques.”
Navigant added specialised drones are required for the task, since they must provide sharp optics and be able to maintain stability in strong winds.
“Equally important is the integration of data analysis systems and inspection services that can help automate data processing and analysis to mitigate the photo fatigue that can occur photographing, analysing, and cataloging vast blade surface image data across fleets of wind turbines.”
The market is already significant in size, with nearly 270,000 individual wind turbines operating globally at the beginning of 2015, with more than 800,000 blades spinning on these turbines, according to the company.