Can the construction sector learn from innovations in wind turbine maintenance?

Posted by Derek Mason

13th October 2020

Accidents and the construction industry go hand in hand. Even if we spend a lot of time at our desks, there’s always an awareness of the risks of a site visit – especially on a large commercial site.

But wind turbines might not be something you associate with accidents. And yet their inspection and maintenance crews – some of whom are engineers – regularly climb higher than 50 metres to do their jobs.

Figures from Caithness Windfarm Information Forum, show that this year, to 30 June 2020, there were 94 accidents and 4 fatalities related to the construction and maintenance of wind farms.

And these are not comprehensive figures – it’s likely the true figures are higher.

And it makes sense when you look at the heights people are working at. Look at these two engineers abseiling down a turbine propeller blade. This a job with risks built in.

That’s why developing technology to complete this work safely is a priority. One potential solution has been developed and will be tested over the next few months. The solution is a lightweight robot called RADBLAD which can carry out maintenance surveys of wind turbines, whether they are on land or offshore.

Forth Engineering in Cumbria is working on this technology, which can complete an X-ray survey of a full-size Vesta 47 turbine – plus blades – in only five hours.

Testing and evaluation of the new technology is being carried out at Catapult Offshore Renewable Energy’s testing centre in Blythe, Northumberland, and should be ready to deliver by March 2021.

It’s fascinating to see the sector aiming to reduce the accident rates (and reduce costs) and it will be interesting to see if any of the technology being developed could have a positive impact on accident rates in the construction sector too.

However, we’re not always fast to adopt new technology. A paper in the Journal of Building Engineering, published last November, reviews the literature on data related to robotics and automated systems in construction.

It argues that the sector is “plagued with inefficiencies and low productivity” and declares that “robotics and automated systems have the potential to address these shortcomings; however, the level of adoption in the construction industry is very low”.

It highlights that “a research study with 11 large construction companies and government agencies in Europe reports that while companies perceive that robotics and automated systems will improve productivity and health and safety, there are significant risks to adoption including high costs for implementation and high commercial and technical risks”.

Another study quoted notes that “the construction industry has been slow to adopt not only robotics but new technologies in general”. I think that’s why it’s interesting to keep an eye on what other sectors, like the renewable energy sector, are developing. And we can hope that their innovations trickle down into construction.

Meanwhile, if you need assistance with the structural elements of an upcoming project, please do get in touch.

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