The wind energy sector is at a crossroads. It can incorporate learnings fr­om other energy sectors with respect to the deployment and utilisation of digital technologies such as drones, robots and artificial intelligence (AI) systems for growth and advancement over the coming years. Digitalisation presents several advantages to wind energy systems in terms of improved safety, greater reliability and accuracy in data collection, spee­dy dissemination of data, lower operatio­nal cos­ts and greater flexibility in undertaking ma­in­tenance activities. The development of digital technologies for operation and ma­in­tenance (O&M) has given rise to new business models in the energy sector due to redu­ced dependence on hu­man interventions.

At present, North America is leading the way in the adoption of drone technologies in power utilities. Countries in Asia Pacific and South Asia are catching up with the development through enforcement of regulatory frameworks on the utilisation of drones in energy industries. The limitatio­ns to mobility and access faced during the pandemic have also reignited a strong will among policymakers, business executives and other stakeholders to improve auto­mated technological solutions. Ac­cor­ding to a study by Frost & Sullivan, the market for drones in the energy sector is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 23.6 per cent by 2030, with an investment outlay of $515 million.

However, with their tremendous advantages, digital technologies also bring in new security and privacy challenges. The dy­­namic nature of energy systems de­ma­nds a constant development of new technologies to keep up with the ever-changing requirements of the sector. Yet, given the rapid push to renewable energy by countries worldwide, it is certain that digitalisation is the future of wind energy. Mar­ket pa­rticipants are thus moving towards developing the software and hardware to provide enhanced operational capacity and competitive advantage to wind developers.

Why digitalisation of wind O&M is the future

Digital technologies are transforming the energy sector. Robots, drones, AI and cloud computing are collectively streng­thening the operations and grid resilience in the wind sector. More­over, the pandemic has shifted the global mindset to­wards automation and technological solutions. Robotic solutions perform re­mote inspections, troubleshooting, problem assessments and maintenance procedures. Dro­n­es are beneficial in capturing images from vantage points which may not be ea­sily accessible to human beings. Robots and drones also reduce the risks to hu­man life, preventing them from visiting wind energy projects located in remote regions. They also help minimise hu­man errors associated with manual da­ta collection and on-site assessment. Da­ta collected by drones is likely to be more accurate as compared to data collected manually. Drones can hover ar­ound turbines covering their entire surface area using digital and/or thermogra­phic cameras. These cameras can capture clear and accurate data regarding de­fects, corrosion and unsuitable temp­eratures which may not be obvious to the human eye. Wind turbines are often located in regions with extreme temperatures which may create impediments in the functioning of the turbines. For ins­tance, in colder regi­ons, ice may gather on wind turbine bla­des, thereby, reducing the efficiency of turbines. In such regions, dro­nes can be fitted with sprinklers for de-icing blades and improving the performance of the wind plants.

Drones also prove to be more time efficient in operations. As per a study by analytics company Nanonets, semi-automated drones are capable of inspecting 10-15 wind turbines in a day as compared to two to three turbines inspected by traditional and conventional methods. With complete automation in inspections, the pot­en­tial may be further increased to almost 20 turbines per day. While the cost of dro­nes per wind turbine is 20-25 per cent low­er than that of manual inspection methods, the overall costs may be higher if the costs of pilots and technicians are factored in.

Further, AI is used to analyse and interpret the potential issues ca­ptured in the data while tools such as internet of things help in undertaking im­mediate response for recovery. On identifying the cause of error, robots can be used to undertake repairs. At present, the development of such automated robots is still at a nascent stage. Cloud computing and 4G/5G facilitate real-time transfer of data from the project site to technicians and project developers. Speedy transfer of data is one of the most crucial aspects of limiting the damage and costs associated with the maintenance of wind energy infrastructure. The adoption of augmented and virtual reality has also provided a medium for technicians to visualise operational scenarios in remote locations.

Digitalisation of O&M practices in the wind energy sector can improve the bankability of wind projects. Given the key role of finance in transforming the renewable energy sector, improving the bankability of wind energy projects will be crucial to incorporate mo­dern digital tools. Wind power assets op­erated using digital me­chanisms can provide adequate data for investors to analy­se and assess the planning, operations, risks and predicted re­turns associated with a particular project. Data-driven in­sights on grid stability, peak load management, repair response time and overall resilience of the wind power infrastructure can improve investor confidence by helping them determine the financial outcomes of a project. Further­more, as digitalisation reduces the cost of O&M by enabling flexible and efficient grid operations, in­ves­tors are likely to prefer projects back­ed by automated solutions vis-à-vis projects utilising traditional/manual solutions.

Automated solutions are particularly useful in offshore wind farms as they are located away from the coast. This makes undertaking maintenance and assessment with crewed vessels highly expensive, risky and time-consuming. To add­re­ss these inefficiencies, offshore wind op­erators are rapidly adopting remote and autonomous robotic solutions.

Automated solutions offer the facility of frequent inspections which is not economically feasible with manual inspections. Robots are ideal for the maintenance of offshore wind infrastructure as they have negligible operational expenditure for operators. In this regard, uncre­wed surface vessels are an upcoming technology being developed to perform tasks in remote offshore locations while being operated from distant locations onshore. Uncrewed vessels provide the advantage of reduced direct human interventions in offshore sites, while delivering speedy and high quality insights using cloud-based data dissemination technologies. Since these vessels can operate on hybrid diesel-electric engines, their car­bon footprint may be significantly low­er as compared to that of crewed vessels.

Potential challenges

Digitalisation of the wind sector faces numerous challenges which must be add­ressed to reap the maximum benefit out of technological advancements. As technological solutions are mostly driven by data, ensuring compatibility and standardisation in data transfer from the project site to different centres would be crucial. When multiple drones are used at a single site, the process of analysing data may beco­me more complex. This would require a special team of technical experts to consolidate and interpret the data accurately. Drones capture large volumes of sensitive data; hence, maintaining security and privacy of the data is a challenge. Regula­tions for flying of drones should also be laid down and streamlined to prevent sa­fety breaches. Extreme weather co­n­di­tions such as wind storms, snow and dust may act as a hindrance in the pe­rfor­mance of drones and robotics. An­other area of concern is the technical rea­diness of the workforce to operate automated technologies. This issue is particularly pertinent in developing econo­mies, which face a general lack of a technically skilled workforce. How­ever, this can be achieved using specialised pro­grammes at universities and innovation centres. Despite low and negligent op­erational costs, digital technologies such as robots and drones may entail hi­gh initial investments. Thus, it is also es­s­­ential to lay an emphasis on studying the per­formance of different types of technological solutions to ensure that investme­nts in automated solutions yield good re­turns. As small firms may not be able to meet such initial investments, financial and regulatory support is also essential to bring about widespread digital transformation in the wind power sector. Further­more, robotic solutions for offshore wind projects require the establishment of a local, on-site facility which can facilitate re­charging, safety check-up and data transfer from uncrewed vessels without the need for human intervention. The lack of such facilities will lead to high costs as un­crewed surface vessels will have to travel long distances to reach ports and islands for charging and data transfer services.

The way ahead

The onset of digital solutions can enhance the generation potential further by providing greater efficiency in the O&M of wind projects. Companies shou­ld focus on partnerships and collaborations for research and deve­lopment to improve their market competitiveness. The governments must also provide the necessary regulatory and financial support for faster adoption of digital technologies. In the coming years, auto­ma­tion and digitalisation will continue to dri­ve the wind energy sector, enhancing the output and efficiency of wind projects th­roughout their life cycles.