The Aibotix drone. Screenshot, Aibotix/YouTube
The prospect of a booming wind turbine drone-inspection industry conjures up the shiny, aspirational tech-done-right kind of vision we’d all like to see more of, doesn’t it? Endless rows of clean power-generating turbines in the desert, friendly UAVs swarming gently around. A new study from a respected market research firm says we should actually expect to see scenes like that soon—and that those maintenance drones will be big business, too.
According to Navigant Research, the “cumulative global revenue for wind turbine UAV sales and inspection services is expected to reach nearly $6 billion by 2024.”
Navigant has put together a new report detailing the projected rise of a nascent hybrid industry; one that most of us probably had no idea even existed in the first place. There were 270,00 wind turbines with 800,000 spinning blades in the beginning of 2015, according to Navigant. By now, in September, there are already thousands more.
Total worldwide wind power capacity, by year. Image: GWEC
Wind power is booming, with installation rates continuing to climb every year.
And all those turbine blades, and the mechanical parts that harness their power, eventually break down. Until recently, that meant a repairman had to climb the sometimes truly massive structures (the tallest stand over 600 feet) to perform high-flying, high-risk maintenance on the turbines. It’s a dangerous gig that occasionally leads to fatalities, made more dangerous by the fact that technicians often don’t have access to great data beforehand, and must diagnose issues once they get up there.
Now, increasingly, companies are sending drones up to do the scouting.
“Deterioration can cause reduced energy production in early stages and catastrophic and costly blade collapse if left unnoticed,” Navigant says. “This is driving a brisk business in wind turbine blade inspections, a role that has traditionally been accomplished from the ground with simple visual inspections or more complicated and risky rope or platform access. A new approach using unmanned aerial vehicles... is rapidly muscling in as a middle option.”
Indeed, trade magazines have already been hyping the rise of wind turbine repair bots like AutoCopter—large, sturdy drones that can ascend quickly and observe the system in HD video. And companies like Aibotix are marketing its drones specifically to wind turbine companies.
“Multi-rotor UAV units with robust stability in strong winds, strong battery life, and sharp optics are essential,” Navigant notes. “Equally important is the integration of data analysis systems and inspection services”—software that can automate the data processing. Combined, the firm estimates the wind turbine drone industry will be generating $6 billion worth of revenue in nine years.
For a frame of reference, the entire worldwide surf and skate industry is estimated to create $6 billion worth of revenue. The global tortilla industry—for chips, fast food chains, and tacos—is worth $6 billion. In less than ten years, an industry you’ve never heard of, performing a niche task that didn’t exist ten years ago, will be at least that big.
It’s encouraging, too—the trend forecast heralds the rise of both more clean energy infrastructure and smart uses of drone tech. Who knows what else the drones will find up there.