Utility investments in innovative startups are growing as they look to the future decentralised markets. Much of these appear to have been focussed on customer facing products or services but with the emergence of technologies such as drones and robotics and augmented reality, there also is a growing shift towards the utility service segment.
One recent example is Enel Green Power North America’s partnership with US software provider Raptor Maps to implement and scale the use of drones and artificial intelligence for the management of solar assets.
Predating this back to 2014, and a time when the opportunities for drones were just starting to be realised, their potential entered the sights of Spanish energy giant Iberdrola with a €500,000 investment in innovation funding in the Salamanca-based enterprise Arbórea Intellbird.
The outcome of this venture, which is still in the experimental phase, is the Arachnocopter drone that, according to a statement, “has revolutionised wind turbine blade inspections”. Coupled to the company’s ‘Power Grids’ artificial intelligence-based line management software, the technology also is now being applied to monitor wind farm evacuation lines in order to reduce maintenance and down times times and to detect and measure hidden structural problems like corrosion, hot spots and other critical faults.
Wind farm powerline monitoring
The Arachnocopter was built to accommodate a wide variety of equipment ranging from high definition cameras to sensors. Features include an automatic self-stabilisation system for ease of piloting and the device doesn’t require special logistical maintenance and can be easily transported in a hard suitcase.
In the line monitoring use case, high resolution digital maps of the powerlines are processed and made available to Iberdrola Renewables through the software app and cloud report in order to facilitate automated smart fault management. An associated Power-eye mobile app introduces augmented reality that enables repairers to easily find faults identified in the lines.
According to the statement, this digitally-based asset inspection system permits centralised strategic decision-taking and generates efficient control with a predictive approach to faults. The first experimental experiences on the powerlines, which were carried out at the 31.5MW Sierra de Dueña wind farm, approximately 40km from Salamanca, will provide valuable data for determining the viability of the new inspection protocol.
Wind turbine blade inspection
Along with the powerline use case, Arbórea in collaboration with Iberdrola Renewables’ Operation and Maintenance Division have also made some significant improvements to the blade inspection process.
During a seven-minute flight, the Arachnocopter can generate an X-ray of the inside of a wind turbine blade, detect damage and automatically quantify the extent. Algorithms are used to associate defective blades with failure modes and ageing curves to facilitate the diagnosis.
In this way, serious internal structural issues can be detected in the early stages, helping Iberdrola to design and implement new, safer and less costly repair at height procedures, identifying blades in bad condition and repairing them more cheaply.
During the last two years, Arbórea engineers have performed audits on more than 1,200 Iberdrola blades in Spain and Mexico. The results underline the value of combining the Arachnocopter and its associated software, the statement notes.
Moreover, the project will enable Iberdrola to significantly reduce the time spent inspecting devices installed on wind farms while improving reliability, which signifies an important advance in operations and maintenance work, one of the wind power sector's current priorities.
Iberdrola puts strong stock on innovation and in 2017 claimed to be the fourth largest energy company worldwide in terms of R&D investment with €246m.
The Arbórea investment is but one out of its €70m PERSEO programme, which was launched in 2008 to support technology-based entrepreneurs and start-ups in the energy sector in particular in Spain, the UK and US.
Out of that, to date more than €50m has been invested in 10 startups and more than 30 pilot programmes have been launched providing access to new technologies and business models – one of the main goals of the programme, along with the early identification of key trends.
The main areas of focus are smart customer solutions, the power grid of the future, management of distributed energy resources, renewable energy integration technologies, advanced operation and maintenance technologies – into which the Arbórea funding falls – and e-mobility solutions.
Examples of other companies that have received investments from the fund are energy storage provider Stem and artificial intelligence-based software provider Innowatts.
Others in the O&M category include the Spain-based Atten2 and GDES T4S. Atten2 develops condition monitoring solutions for assets such as multipliers, bearings and gearboxes in wind and gas turbines among other sectors. GDES provides monitoring and other solutions primarily for the nuclear sector.