Using Drone-Based Aerial Intelligence in the Wind Turbine Lifecycle

The following is an excerpt from our solution brief, Wind Turbine Blade Lifecycle Managementwhere we explore how drone-based technology is transforming wind energy operations. Download the solution brief to learn how you can create and deploy a drone-based solution to reach new levels of safety and efficiency in collecting, processing, and actioning wind turbine data.

Download Solution Brief


Wind power production is experiencing significant growth globally and is on track to reach 705.5 gigawatts in capacity by 2020, according to Navigant Research. As a result, the need for safe and efficient means to inspect turbines, anticipate blade failure, and ensure assets are generating maximum output has grown, too.

However, existing inspection methods—such as rope-access inspection and ground-based cameras—can be dangerous and error-prone. And aggregating the data inspectors collect into a single, standardized database can be messy, if not impossible.

PrecisionHawk provides a drone-based turbine blade management solution that includes data collection, processing, and reporting in a streamlined manner. The resulting reports can be referenced directly to resolve issues. And data can be incorporated into asset management or enterprise resource systems to automatically prescribe action.

Through our work with industry-leading turbine manufacturers, we’ve seen results:

  • Less downtime due to inspection or unforeseen damage
  • Fewer climbs—by up to 50%—and hazardous manhours
  • Up to 80% reduction in inspection costs
  • Faster fixes to blade issues and greater production per turbine


Collecting more precise data, safely

Traditionally, wind assets have been difficult and hazardous to inspect on-site. In fact, the United Kingdom recorded 163 total accidents in the wind power industry in 2016, including five fatal accidents. O&M providers rely on technicians to climb towers to check for cracks, tip erosion, delamination, and other issues. Though technicians can remain safe by using ground-based scopes and cameras, the results of such inspections can vary due to poor visual resolution and insufficient viewing angles.

As mentioned above, drone-based solutions reduce climbs by up to 50%, which in turn, keep inspectors safe on the ground while gathering high-quality images and data.

In 2017, Statoil (now Equinor) used PrecisionHawk to complete drone inspections for its 317 megawatt Sheringham Shoal Wind Farm off the coast of Norfolk in the United Kingdom. The 200 drone flights inspected 264 blades, and the inspections revealed blade health details Equinor had not known about before. The drones were operated from the site’s standard 19-meter service vessels with no need for climbers. A year later, the company won the RenewableUK Health & Safety Innovation Award for a significant reduction in risky transfers and equipment lifts.

Wind farms present a challenging environment for aircraft. After all, they’re located in windy areas and feature unique aerodynamics caused by operational turbines. However, our drones are purpose-built for such a challenging environment. They’re lightweight, but rugged, allowing for agile operations in high-wind conditions. And they include rotor blade guards to mitigate the damage that could occur on contact.

To capture data, our operators deploy drones with a visual sensor—or camera—payload. While flying close to turbine blades is one way to accomplish a detailed inspection, a high-resolution sensor payload enables drone operators to balance data fidelity with safe standoff distances. In the resulting data, we can catch nearly imperceptible cracks and other precursors to critical failures – often before they cause significant blade damage and downtime.

Intelligent flight planning

To execute missions, our pilots use PrecisionFlight. The software’s intelligent flight planning enables operators to deploy manual, semi-autonomous, and fully autonomous missions that comply with regulations and safety management systems.

A typical mission looks like this:

  1. Prior to a mission, the drone operator defines a flight plan by combining turbine specifications with 3D geospatial data, such as the surrounding terrain and no-fly zones.
  2. To identify potential issues, they emulate the flight in PrecisionFlight, setting additional boundaries, as necessary.
  3. Once on-site, operators load the plan (no connectivity required), deploy the drone, and monitor it—using flight telemetry—as it automatically captures data along a precise flight path, predetermined by a set of waypoints.
  4. The drone captures imagery of the leading and trailing edges of the blade (though other turbine components can be inspected, as well). If issues requiring further inspection surface during autonomous flight, the operator can manually navigate to the area of concern.
  5. After the mission, the pilot can “replay” the mission to assess mission efficacy and optimize the flight plan.


While capturing blade conditions at a single point in time is useful, you gain greater insight by tracking trends over a given period. Using PrecisionFlight’s repeatable flight plans, operators can capture multiple data sets, from separate missions, that precisely correlate.

Conducting safe and effective flight operations

Beyond flight software, the skills of your drone operators are critical to the safety and effectiveness of your drone-based turbine inspections. The pilot in command must understand your objectives and follow rigorous procedures, regardless of whether they’re your own staff or PrecisionHawk’s experienced flight operators.

To meet these requirements, PrecisionHawk’s leaders—many of whom are former Navy TOPGUN pilots—developed our industry-leading drone operating procedures:

  • Mission Requirements—Understand the assets and area of interest to be inspected and specific requirements of the mission—in this case, wind farms, turbines, and blades.
  • Mission Readiness—Complete a rigorous training program for the complete mission lifecycle, from analyzing airspace around turbines to flying blades in various positions while managing unusual wind farm aerodynamics.
  • Procedure—Follow flight standards, a comprehensive mission checklist, safety management systems, and incident protocols.
  • Regulatory Compliance—Comply with guidelines, designed by our policy analysts, to limit regulatory exposure.
  • Quality Assurance—Verify that the data meets quality requirements using PrecisionHawk’s offline field analysis tool; identify anomalies, omissions, and other issues prior to delivery.
  • Data Secure Chain of Custody—Protect mission data by following secure transportation, transmission, and destruction protocols.
  • Continuous Improvement—Engage in a continuous improvement plan, reporting lessons learned and applying them to future operations.

These are principles we require of all PrecisionHawk’s flight stakeholders, whether they be our 100-plus full-time pilots, the more than 15,000 pilots in our drone pilot network, or our clients’ own inspection and aviation staff. We’ve designed our training regimen to help professionals of any background achieve this standard of excellence. And everyone, from program directors to visual observers, is responsible for maintaining discipline in the field.

A focused system of integrating data

Where does your inspection data go after it’s collected? Traditionally, inspectors store reports and imagery in a GIS data or manual file storage system. But these solutions can be messy and inaccessible, especially for non-technical stakeholders

With our aerial intelligence platform, drone operators can upload data and imagery into PrecisionHawk’s cloud-based system, PrecisionAnalytics Wind, which cross-references the uploaded imagery against thousands of terabytes of wind turbine data, flagging issues.

After machine intelligence identifies imagery that represents priority issues, it aggregates the data into an intuitive, web-based interface that’s accessible from anywhere.

  • Fleet and Site Statistics—Get a comprehensive view of your assets. Segment your fleet and surface health trends at the portfolio or site-level: view rolled-up statistics on blade damage severity, issues, and other measures you identify.
  • Turbine at-a-Glance—Hone in on problem areas. Review the overall health of each blade on a turbine and navigate image sets using intuitive markers, color-coded for damage severity.
  • Detailed Views—View full-resolution imagery and zoom-in on key issues.
  • In-situ Communication—Create and edit annotations and store metadata, such as the type of observation, your finding, the size of the issue, damage severity, and other parameters. Add comments to other stakeholders.
  • Historical Recordkeeping—Investigate the genesis of an issue. View historical imagery for the same location on the blade from prior inspections to identify potential precursors to the issue at-hand.

Typical issues that analysts identify using drone-based images include charring, chordwise cracking, delamination, dry fiber, erosion, holes, exposed laminate, lightning strikes, spider cracks, splits, stress cracks, pitting, and more.


Once analysts have produced their findings, others need to take action. But how do you give cross-functional and external stakeholders the insights they need (without exposing them to the voluminous detail)?

PrecisionAnalytic Wind’s flexible reporting and integration features enable you to distribute information across your organization—whether it be exporting an Excel and Word document or integrating with other software, such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) or asset management systems. This allows for faster fixes to blade issues and therefore, greater production per turbine.

Put drone-based aerial intelligence to work

Partner with PrecisionHawk to create and deploy a drone-based solution in wind turbine inspections. We’re replacing hazardous rope-access climbs with drone deployments, hours of tedious image review with machine intelligence, and imprecise data with a focused system of reporting.

Why PrecisionHawk?

  • Experience—We specialize in serving major enterprises, counting among our clientele top 50 utilities, oil & gas supermajors, leading wind turbine manufacturers, Fortune 100s, and federal and state agencies.
  • Scale—More than 15,000 licensed operators are available to fly any site in the United States within 24 to 72 hours.
  • Safety and Operational Excellence—Our flight operations our founded on Naval aviation principles, earning an A-rating from ISNet, and ISO accreditation in Quality Standards (9001:2015), Health and Safety (45001:2018), Information Security Standards (27001:2013), and Environmental Standards (14001:2015).
  • Regulatory leadership—We’ve partnered with NASA and the FAA to help define practices in BVLOS operations and universal traffic management, among other regulatory areas.
  • Machine Intelligence—PrecisionAnalytics runs on the newest artificial intelligence platforms, trained using terabytes of data from thousands of drone missions.
  • Cutting-edge Geospatial Science—Our industry-leading team of PhD-holding and remote sensing-accredited geospatial scientists ensure the quality and accuracy of our systems.
  • Hardware Expertise—Career pilots, engineers, and surveyors maintain PrecisionHawk’s portfolio of cutting-edge drones, sensors, and ground-based equipment.

Download our full solution brief for more details on how you can use drone-based aerial intelligence in the wind turbine lifecycle.