(Source: National Geographic)
Thousands of massive wind turbines are popping up all over the world. Often taller than the Statue of Liberty, their stature makes the blades difficult to inspect. The answer? Send in the drones.
This month, unmanned aerial vehicles will fly over orchards and farmland in Mason County, Michigan to inspect three towering turbines in the Lake Winds Energy Park, owned by Consumers Energy, a public utility. Equipped with cameras and sensors, they’ll do what’s often done by workers in helicopters or on ropes.
Drones, long used by the U.S. military to drop missiles on targets, are increasingly eyed for other uses. Hollywood is using them to film movies, and Amazon wants them to deliver packages. Now, they’re poised for takeoff in the energy industry. Oil and gas companies as well as utilities are testing them to inspect pipelines, power lines, wind turbines, and solar farms.
“The opportunities are in the billions — with a B,” says Maryanna Saenko, author of a 2015 Lux Research report on the technology. In the wind industry alone, a new Navigant Research forecast says, drone sales and services could hit $1.6 billion annually and $6 billion cumulatively by 2024.
“Drones provide access to hard-to-get-to locations,” such as remote roads or mountain canyons, says William Semke, director of the University of North Dakota’s unmanned aircraft systems engineering lab. At the same time, he says they—like birds—pose a small risk to low-flying aircraft.
So drones, just starting out in the energy industry, face obstacles. To avoid collisions, countries limit their use. The drone industry will have to prove its vehicles can do business accurately and safely.
They’re getting their chance. In 2014, after years of forbidding commercial drones, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration began granting waivers—typically allowing use within 200 feet of the ground. It’s since approved more than 1,400 waivers for two dozen industries including energy. In February, it proposed a rule on drone use but did not set a deadline for finalizing it.
The oil industry jumped in quickly. Last year, energy giant BP obtained FAA’s first waiver for commercial drone use over land and began tests at its Prudhoe Bay oilfield in Alaska. It’s using a 13-pound, fixed-winged vehicle equipped with LiDAR (light detection and ranging) equipment and remote sensors to collect 3-D images.
“This is a breakthrough for BP,” Curt Smith, its chief technology officer says in a video, describing how drones improve field operations at less cost and risk. Floods and ice floes make make other monitoring methods difficult, BP says on its website. The drones, made by California-based AeroVironment, enable workers to drive gravel roads in poor visibility and scan pipelines to identify frost-damaged areas that need repair.
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com