Robotics across the wind industry is key to scale-up, transforming operations and maintenance and maximising asset life.

A decade in development, BladeBUG, the six-legged, insect-like robot fitted with inspection probes and software, is ready to get to work walking on turbine blades to send real-time data for interpretation remotely.

About 36,000 wind turbine blades spin on UK onshore and offshore wind farms, with thousands more in the pipeline. Global numbers are eye-watering.

Every blade must be maintained in prime condition to ensure its integrity and longevity. A task that currently relies on deploying rope access technicians – an area of critical skills shortage.

Automated wind turbine blade inspection and repair delivered by industry first-mover BladeBUG would transform operations and maintenance.

Operators would achieve greater efficiency and accurate real-time data safely from the intelligent scanning technology integrated into BladeBUG, combined with AI-based data analysis, while technicians could focus on other highly skilled tasks, says BladeBUG inventor and founder Chris Cieslek.

BladeBUG would also help to create a more diverse workforce.

“A robot operator doesn’t have to be on site,” said Chris. “They could be in a control centre miles away and go home to their family every evening. It opens the opportunity for a much broader workforce who aren’t sitting on a boat for three weeks, so changes the dynamics and the opportunities for people to work.”

Eastern Daily Press: BladeBUG inventor and founder Chris CieslekBladeBUG inventor and founder Chris Cieslek (Image: BladeBUG)
Ten years of intensive research and development has led to BladeBUG moving to commercialisation work with operator partners while continuing to evolve.

The path to sales revenue and market adoption will target onshore first, with BladeBUG’s primary focus on how efficiently it can gather data, how quickly and what it costs, then it will target offshore.

The robot, which weighs about 25 kilos and is the size of a small labrador, with suction feet that walk on a blade’s surface, is designed to be swift, easy to deploy and part of a technician’s tool kit.

“There would be adjustable spanners in one bag and the BladeBUG robot in the other,” said Chris. “This sector is receptive to new technology, and we will show that we can do great things. We are fortunate to have a couple of asset owners who want to help us in that transition stage.”

It is aiming at a global footprint with opportunity to manufacture in the US to fit local content requirements, as well as Europe and Asia. BladeBUG’s first commercial work in March 2024 was on onshore turbines in Spain, and in recent field trials in France, BladeBUG captured and sent data for interpretation in real time to an expert 500 miles away.

“People ask if BladeBUG is faster than a person. It is faster but the person who can interpret the data isn’t the person willing to use their skillset to hang off a blade to get it. What BladeBUG can do is bring a unique skillset together with the robot, which otherwise would not exist.

“What matters is the quality of this repetitive reliable data. We are providing a good pathway of feeding data that can be used much more efficiently because, in theory, multiple robots can be on multiple sites feeding one person real-time data, so it is about efficiency, and multiple utilisation rates.

“If you are a developer, and you have 800 turbines in the UK with all different bits of kit of differing ages, having a robot and an agreement to have one of our operators as part of the ‘tower team’ is a clear business case.”

BladeBUG’s potential to address sector skill shortages is also great.

“Recruitment and retention of skilled workers are the biggest barriers to progress in the UK’s offshore wind sector. BladeBUG is not about removal of jobs, it is about helping the people doing it by taking the rope access part out of a skilled technican’s work.”

BladeBUG announced last June that it was partnering with FORCE Technology, using its custom-built NDT solution. The robot used NDT ultrasonic testing with an Olymous EMEA 0.5mhz probe gathering multiple datasets while an NDT expert dialled in remotely from his office 150km away from the blade to verify the scans in real time.

East Anglia-based Dan Greeves recently joined the nine-strong team as chief commercial officer, bringing his proven track record of taking wind industry innovation to market, alongside expertise of offshore engineering and business development across the globe.

Eastern Daily Press: Dan Greeves, chief commercial officerDan Greeves, chief commercial officer (Image: BladeBUG)
“The probes we use to do NDT are the same probes rope access technicians use to do NDT testing,” said Dan. “The probes are fitted to the robot so it’s just the same.

“Operators would not need more people as a wind farm grows. A wind farm portfolio can grow with the same headcount because of increased efficiencies by robots.

“Data can be captured for operators at the time of delivery, before the end of warranty, during a change of ownership, or when considering lifetime extension.”

Using BladeBUG for proactive and predicted maintenance prevents big repairs later, delivering clear cost benefits, added Dan. Plus, putting a robot on a blade costs significantly less – with less risk – than using rope access crew.

“Drones are used to inspect blades. We know that drones give you that visual image but not what lies beneath. The proactive way of doing it is detecting and repairing a small repair early rather than leaving it a year and costing 10 times more, and 10 small repairs could have been done for the price.

“To me, from an offshore engineer’s point of view, it doesn’t make sense.”

The onshore version of BladeBUG is ready, and its design is flexible to make changes as it evolves.

Chris concluded: “Onshore use is great to validate everything and then feed that into the offshore design.

“Drones are a good analogy for where we are now. People thought they were nonsense and not as good as the ground-based photographic system. Now they are the standard defacto first port of call.

“It is all part of getting technology and the business case accepted for perception to flip to become the adopted norm.”