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Insect-inspired repair robot clings to giant turbine blades with suction legs

Have you heard of “wing walkers,” the daredevil stuntmen and women who walk along the wings of planes in flight? Well, BladeBUG is cut from the same cloth — only instead of airborne planes, it performs “blade walks” along the blades of operational offshore wind turbines. And instead of being a death-defying human daredevil, it’s a suction cup-equipped robot insect. (But other than that, it’s totally the same.)

“This opens the door to autonomous inspection and repair of wind turbines, improving the efficiency of the blades and reducing risk for rope access technicians,” Chris Cieslak, founder and director of BladeBUG, told Digital Trends. “[Our robot] uses a patent-pending six-legged design with suction cup feet, which means each of the legs can move and bend independently. This is significant because it enables the robot to walk on the blade’s changing curved surface, as well as inside the blade, tower, or hub of the turbine.”

Cieslak, a former wind blade designer and engineer, is well aware of the challenge that inspection and repair of wind turbines poses. This is no overengineered solution to a task that humans could easily carry out. Offshore wind will play a massive role in reaching net-zero targets for sustainable energy, but to achieve these targets, ever-larger turbines are being built further and further from shore in increasingly deep waters.

This poses a challenge for human technicians wanting to ensure they are properly maintained. Carrying out human inspection means shutting these turbines down for long periods of time, and exposing technicians to harsh environments. The inspection is therefore a confounding mixture of both challenging and repetitive tasks. Perfect for robots, then.

Not that it’s a totally easy task for them, however.

BladeBug robot

Turbine-inspecting robots

“Wind turbine blades are now being made at over 100 meters (330 feet) in length, and are aerofoil in shape for optimal performance,” Cieslak said. “This means the root of the blade has a wide circumference, but the tip is a very tight curve. It is particularly challenging for a robot to walk at these two extremes and — when you combine this with the harsh and exposed offshore environment — a robot has to be both capable of adhering to the blade and flexible enough to adapt to a changing shape.”

After several prototype versions, the team developed the current version of the BladeBUG. Cieslak said that its hexapod design means that each of its six legs can move independently to conform to the changing curves of a blade. Each leg has multiple degrees for freedom, plus the aforementioned suction cups that are capable of supporting the weight of the entire robot as it clings to the composite blades like some Tom Cruise stunt in a Mission: Impossible movie.

“Following our first successful test walk on a blade, we will be carrying out further validation exercises over the next few months, and are planning on launching the robot to early adopters in 2021,” Cieslak said.

Coming soon to a wind turbine near you.

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