Aerones & Enel Green Power advance wind energy thanks to robotics
We are used to seeing wind turbines as we drive by fields, but the distance does not allow us to perceive their true magnitude. Have you ever thought a wind turbine might be as tall as the Eiffel Tower? According to many predictions, by 2025 this will be their average height. Indeed, turbines up to 250 meters in height already exist, and this increase in size is related to the efficiency of the infrastructure.
There has been an evolution with that objective in mind: from 40 meters in 1990, to 80 meters in 2000, to 145 meters in 2015. The higher the turbines, the more power they generate and, therefore, the more efficient they are. But this leads to maintenance challenges as reaching the blades is harder and, above all, riskier for operators.
The Latvian startup Aerones began thinking about how to solve the challenge of wind turbine maintenance in 2015, and now it is focused on advanced automated wind turbine maintenance systems. It has become the first company in the world that’s able to provide such maintenance services using automated technology. Its solution is directly related to sustainability and renewable energy. This is completely in line with Innovability® and the reason why we are working together on this objective.
Robotics caring for blades and the planet
Aerones started as a drone company that investigated cleaning opportunities in the wind turbine industry, but it soon realized that it was focusing on the wrong technology and in 2019 it switched to a robotic system. “So far, these maintenance tasks have been performed by people attached to ropes, but we thought that robots could do the work more effectively,” explains Aerones’s co-founder Dainis Kruze.
As previously mentioned, the wind energy sector is changing. According to Kruze: “In the last 30 years, this sector has grown rapidly. If we want this kind of energy to be more efficient, the blades need to become larger and the turbines taller. That means that some automation is inevitable: humans can't handle those tasks, it is too risky, and accidents can happen.”
Francisco J. Valle, Wind Innovation Product Owner at Enel Green Power, who works directly with the startup, agrees: “Currently, it is essential to robotize maintenance activities to reduce accidents, increase productivity and improve results.”
Thanks to robots, technicians can work from their cars, offices or other safe environments as the turbine can be controlled remotely and the job can be done “four times more quickly, cheaply and safely.” Aerones' robotics can perform a variety of services: inspection (of drainage holes, blades and towers), cleaning and repair tasks. This technology combines external high-resolution images and high-quality internal inspections.
“The potential is huge,” says Valle, who lists the benefits: “avoiding high-risk operations, reducing inspection costs and time on blades, increasing efficiency by combining several activities with one tool and improving communication (making it faster and automatic) with inspection suppliers.”
Technology that inspires and amazes
Aerones’ solution is based on a robotic arm platform located in the middle and rope controls that allow vertical movement. Its movement is like that of a spider on its web, with the same grace and control, or of an acrobat suspended in mid-air.
“The robots can move four meters per second and the movement of the arm can adapt its position very quickly to do the different tasks. For example, one robot can work on five or six turbines a day,” Kruze explains. Afterwards, “the technician can change the tools of the robot so that it can move up and down and perform a variety of tasks.”
Wind farms that will make a difference
Aerones was scouted by the Enel Innovation Hub Europe in 2018 and the first connection was established during the Enel Green Power Bootcamp later that year. Kruze recalls that “they visited us in Latvia in 2019 to see a first trial. For us, it was a great sign of recognition that such a big company wanted to work with us, in spite of the Covid pandemic. They really bet on something that was completely new and totally out of the box.”
Enel Green Power did bet on this, as the collaboration has become a reality since 2020, when EGP performed some tests in North America. As Valle explains, “we used Aerones’ technology in LPS inspection and drainage hole cleaning at the Red Dirt and Thunder Ranch Wind Plants, in Oklahoma (US). Aerones was tested on 14 units at Red Dirt and 17 turbines at Thunder Ranch. It was an operational and economic success.”
Now, Enel Green Power is still collaborating with Aerones in order to test soon new functionalities that will be used in the future in all the relevant countries. Also, invited by Enel Innovation Hub Europe and Enel Green Power, last May 12th together with Nicola Rossi, Head of Innovation at Enel Green Power, Kruze pitched in Ecosummit Zoom, a digital event series run this year by Ecosummit, an international conference for smart green startups, investors and corporates in energy, mobility and cities.
Wind for sustainability to take off
So far, Aerones has worked on more than 40 projects and with more than 30 clients in Europe, North and South America. “We have at least three times more projects than we had in our first commercial year,” Kruze says. In the future, the company plans to add new services, so that robots can complete more tasks autonomously.
Indeed, Aerones’ co-founder sees an inspirational future: “We really believe in this industry and how it's helping to solve the problem of global warming. Our solution can improve the wind industry’s efficiency by 5% or 6%, which will have a huge impact on the energy sector and make a massive contribution to the energy transition. That's a story to tell our grandchildren.”