Pilot Perspective: Using Drones for Wind Turbine Inspections
I’m on a plane heading to North Dakota during the tail-end of winter, mentally preparing myself to spend a month doing a job that I never knew existed
I earned my Part 107 license through the Drone Videography course at the University of South Florida as an elective for the production program. With the emphasis on videography, that’s about as far as my imagination ran for the use of drones. Fast forward two years, I’m on a plane heading to North Dakota during the tail-end of winter, mentally preparing myself to spend a month doing a job that I never knew existed.
Energy generated from wind makes up about 10.2% (2022) of the U.S.’s total energy production. A lot of hands are needed to maintain the over 70,800 turbines currently operating in the U.S. The frequent maintenance of these machines is important for them to keep running, and even more important to the safety of the technicians who enter these towers every day.
I’m not certain that I had ever seen a wind turbine before I got to North Dakota. The first night we built a drone that I had never seen before, and the next morning I got my first up-close look at a wind farm. I wasn’t yet used to the feeling of snow crunching beneath my feet, or having to dress myself in six layers of clothes to get ready in the morning. I put on my shiny new steel-toe boots, grabbed my dad’s hand-me-down hard hat, and got in the rental truck to start my first day. It’s intimidating at first, standing at the base of a nearly three-hundred-foot multi-million dollar machine. The massive blades bending as they cut through the air above me. My trainer entered the tower to shut it down so we could get started. The loud whirring of the turbine slowly pitched down into silence, and he applied the brakes.
I had certainly never worked with a drone this advanced, but it was the technology accompanying it that blew me away. We positioned the drone to do an autonomous takeoff. With the press of a button, the drone armed, the props spun up, and it began its vertical climb. Within a minute I had a full, manipulatable 3D model of the wind turbine on the tablet that displays all of the flight information. The 3D model is constructed using a LIDAR system fixed to the top of the drone. The next thing I see pop up on the tablet is a drawn route around every blade of the turbine, the path that the drone will autonomously follow to complete the inspection. For the next fifteen or so minutes the drone flies itself around every angle of the turbine’s blades, taking upwards of three hundred photos. The drone confidently pirouettes around the massive blades, every time looking like there’s going to be an expensive crash. But against what all my instincts are telling me, it completes the job, and begins its descent back towards its pilots. My trainer takes over with manual controls and lands the drone. My very first wind turbine has been inspected.
Since my month-long training in North Dakota, I have traveled solo, inspected hundreds of wind turbines across the US. The process is always more or less the same as I described earlier. It's then a journey of becoming the safest and most efficient pilot possible. With having to log my flights every day I am able to look back and see how my work has improved.
The wind industry has been a reliable source of work for Hartley Aerial, but I think we’d all agree that we prefer our boots on the dirt. The shift into using drones for blade inspections means one less reason that a technician has to perform the objectively more dangerous task of climbing the tower themselves.
Traveling so often is a double edged sword. On one hand, I miss my friends and family back home, my cat, my hobbies, and my routines that I’m able to maintain. But on the other hand, I understand what an amazing opportunity that I have. Going across the country and exploring towns that most people have never heard of. A lot of times I stand out amongst the locals. I’m able to join these intimate communities for a few days or weeks, joining their story for a short time and sharing my own.
The wind-energy industry was something I knew little about. I supported it passively, just thinking of renewable energy as an all-around good thing to support. It’s still fascinating to me that flying a Phantom 4 on my college campus has led me to this point. Now that I’ve expanded my understanding of drones I am flying more than ever and having more fun doing it. I’m happy to still be on the forefront of where drone technology is heading, and continue my learning of the wind industry.
The amount of energy produced by wind turbines is steadily increasing annually. The total wind energy produced in the U.S. is about 125.4 Terawatt hours (TWh), with the global amount reaching 1870 TWh in 2021. The number of people employed in the wind industry has reached 120,000 as of 2023. The future is bright for renewable energy.