Checking wind turbines up to 300 feet high can be a challenge, and inspector in the field must stop the turbine rotate the composite blades and inspect and photograph any potential defects through a telescope which as you can imagine could take a while.
Engineers at GE’s Global Research Centre partnered with a New York robotics company called International Climbing Machines (ICM) that developed a remote-controlled wall climbing robot, and strapped a wireless high-definition video camera to its back. The device can scale vertical, 300-foot high steel turbine poles in minutes, photograph turbine blades, and beam the results back to earth.
The robot does not fall down because a vacuum pump at the center of the machine sucks out the air between its belly and the wall, and creates a vacuum force that glues the 30-pound vehicle securely to any hard surface including concrete, brick, or metal. The robot’s soft tracks maintain its grip even when it rides over bumps in the surface like bolt heads, plates, and weld seams. The patented vacuum seal is so strong that the robot can pull as much as 225 pounds straight up a wall.
The first wind turbine inspection test, which took place last year at a wind farm in Texas, was a success. The machine worked well even in wet conditions. GRC engineers are now thinking about adding a microwave scanner that could also peer inside the composite blades and give an early indication of any breakdown in the structure. “We could see smaller defects a lot earlier inside the blade, before they break to the surface and cause problems,” Faidi says.