With well over 1000 bolts in a typical wind turbine, check tightening bolts is the biggest scheduled maintenance task for wind turbine operators, incurring significant costs and turbine downtime.
To meet the UK’s Net Zero target of 75GW of offshore wind capacity by 2050, technicians of the future would need to cover almost a quarter of a million blades and 79 million bolts. However, without using robotics and smart technologies, this scale of expansion will simply not be technically or financially feasible.
To tackle this, ORE Catapult brought together two UK innovators in a mission to develop a robotic solution for ensuring the integrity of the millions upon millions of bolts that hold wind turbines together.
The six-legged BladeBUG inspect-and-repair robot for turbine blades and EchoBolt’s ultrasonic bolt inspection device came together under an Innovate UK-funded project, in collaboration with GE Renewable Energy and ORE Catapult.
In a first of its kind demonstration, a six-legged robot has shown how it can inspect wind turbine bolts autonomously, eliminating the need for technicians to loosen and retighten thousands of bolts per wind turbine as part of routine maintenance.
The robot successfully crawled the interior of ORE Catapult’s 7MW Levenmouth Demonstration Turbine in Fife, inspecting bolts to identify any loss of tension. The achievement could lead to the production of a predictive schedule for future operations, while also paving the way for the EchoBoltBUG to perform bolt checks autonomously.
Leading turbine developer GE Renewable Energy, which played a supporting role on the project as technology advisor, estimated that the companies’ technology fusion will unlock cost savings of 75 per cent in bolt maintenance and repair bills. The potential market prize ahead of the solution’s developers is estimated at £150 million per year by 2030.
It will also reduce time spent on maintenance, critical structural failures and extend turbine lifetimes at sea, all of which will be crucial as the European market looks set to accelerate its expansion as Russian fossil fuel imports reduce.
The technologies at the heart of this project were developed under previous projects funded by Innovate UK and in collaboration with ORE Catapult. BladeBUG’s crawling robot inspects and repairs blade surfaces, a task that currently requires technicians to scour every inch of their surfaces. While EchoBolt’s device can detect bolt tension using ultrasonics without the need for labourious loosening and retightening with hydraulic tools.
BladeBUG has previously proven its abilities to walk and inspect blades at ORE Catapult’s Levenmouth Demonstration Turbine, while the EchoBolt technology has been validated through trials in bolt inspection at the same test turbine and on GE’s Haliade-X, the world’s biggest offshore wind turbine nacelle.
Across the five projects that ORE Catapult has support BladeBUG with since 2017, it has been able to grow from a man with a single idea to a team of 10, with many more to come over the next few years.