Midwest Energy News throws a spotlight on a Wisconsin company that’s created a robot that scales the high wind turbines to inspect turbines.
Helical Robotics in Oregon, Wisconsin presents an alternative to the “traditional” methods of inspection, bringing in cranes or bucket trucks (which costs a lot of money), rope specialists who can climb the towers then repel back down when their tasks are complete, or inspecting the turbine using a telescope on the ground.
“It’s a lot easier to work on these things if you’re standing on the ground than if you’re hanging from a rope,” said Bruce Schlee, president and CEO of Helical Robotics in Oregon, Wisconsin.
Helical Robotics unveiled their robot at the American Wind Energy Association annual conference last month. It’s only about the size of a briefcase, yet it carries many tools and a high-resolution camera. The wheels are magnetic, which allows it to scale the tower.
Helical Robotics was founded in 2010 after Schlee listened to a friend in the wind blade reconditioning business complain about the time it took to remove each blade for painting. What about a robot that could do the job with the blades still attached?
Schlee shared the idea with his brother, Keith Schlee, an aerospace engineer who was working for NASA at the time, and they set about inventing the machine. They now have three patents pending and five other employees.
Each machine will be custom-built based on the needs of their customers. The size varies depending upon the specific needs, it can be outfitted with several cameras, tools, or robotic arms and can be controlled remotely or programmed to run fully automated.
“There’s a lot of really basic inspection that has to happen, and there aren’t enough highly trained people who are willing to go 350 feet up in the air and repel from these towers to keep up with the inspection need worldwide,” he said.
Even if the machines don’t replace rope specialists, they could assist by holding and transporting tools and equipment for workers, he said. Other potential uses include bridge and pipeline inspections.
The company recently tested its magnetic-wheeled robot at an undisclosed wind farm in the Midwest, Schlee said. There was strong interest at the AWEA conference, he said, and they’re currently co-developing two custom machines with wind companies.
Not to be outdone, General Electric recently announced a partnership with a robotics company in New York to create a similar turbine-climbing robot. Instead of magnets, though, this devise uses a vacuum pump to suction to the surfaces.