Martin LaMonica

A View from Martin LaMonica

Not Afraid of Heights, Robot Inspects Wind Turbine

GE deploys a climbing robot to give wind turbine inspectors a better picture of turbine pole health and, in the future, to peer inside wind turbine blades.

  • June 14, 2012

General Electric is enlisting climbing robots to inspect its giant wind turbines, foreshadowing a day where different types of robots provide safety checks which people on the ground couldn’t do.

Going up: GE’s new robot scales a wind turbine. Credit: GE.

In a test at a Texas wind farm last year, GE engineers sent up a small tank-like robot carrying a high-definition video camera up a utility-scale wind turbine pole, which can be about 300 feet tall. While motoring its way across the pole’s surface, it sends images wirelessly to an inspector on the ground who looks for defects.

The technique has advantages over the usual method where inspectors study the poles with a high-power telescope, which can take several hours and can be hindered by poor light from clouds or precipitation.

The robot can operate in foul weather and provide very detailed images of the structure while minimizing the amount of time a turbine needs to be taken off line, according to GE Research. Operators view the images and control the machine’s movements from a laptop-like base station wired to the robot.

The researchers also hope to equip the robot, made by International Climbing Machines, with a microwave scanner that would generate images of a wind turbine blade’s interior. “We could see smaller defects a lot earlier inside the blade, before they break to the surface and cause problems,” said Waseem Faidi, manager of the non-destructive evaluation lab at GE’s Research Center, in a company blog.

The robot itself is designed specifically for climbing and remote control. International Climbing Machine has an on-board vacuum suction system that creates a strong seal to adhere to surfaces. The company has developed the robot for inspections as well as for removing nasty material, such as lead paint, from vertical surfaces, including underwater tanks. In the case of wind turbine inspection, GE said it can carry up to 225 pounds of gear, navigate over bolts and other protrusions, and withstand heavy winds.

GE’s embrace of robots for wind turbines reflects a robotics industry trend toward using robots to aid people in “dull, dirty, and dangerous” work, such as cleaning up nuclear power plants or fetching goods around warehouses. In the case of managing wind farms, it’s another tool wind operators could use to prevent costly performance problems and lower operating costs.

In the future, GE imagines deploying flying, helicopter-like robots to provide close inspection of blades.

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