More and more industries are using multicopters to inspect wind parks, buildings, airplanes or large sites. Lufthansa Aerial Services is taking off in this market
The swarm is about to attack – or at least that’s what it sounds like. The buzzing high over our heads resembles a squadron of irate hornets. An anxious glance upwards provides reassurance: No, we are not about to be dive-bombed by insects. Instead, hovering above us is a black, cross-shaped device with four blades, each tipped with a rotor, and with a camera mounted below. It is a quadcopter, aka a drone. The intensity of the humming increases and it ascends – are we really safe? David vs. Goliath. The small drone, roughly an arm’s length in diameter, against the gigantic wind turbine that soars into the cloudy sky in Germany’s Eiffel region? Not quite. The man with the mirrored shades and bulky remote controller at the foot of the wind turbine is no modern-day Don Quixote. The task of Michael Reitz (38) is to check how well the wind turbine’s rotor blades still work. What is still a challenging job for a steeplejack is performed here by Lufthansa Aerial Services (LAS) from the air with the aid of a drone.
Operating a drone requires a high level of flying skill
Drone pilot Reitz tilts his head back and guides his device along one of the rotor blades. “Today’s conditions are very dicey,” he says. The top wind speed is roughly 30 kilometers an hour, which is well within range for the device. The problem is the sharp gusts of wind that buffet the drone. “If you don’t watch out, that’s it,” says Reitz, who relies to a great extent on his experience, too.
Reitz has been steering remotely controlled air vehicles for 30 years and twice won the world championships as part of a team; the man is a veritable RC virtuoso. He is accustomed to flying at shows with masses of spectators, but his sole audience today is a couple of cows grazing on the neighboring field.
Standing next to him is his colleague, also holding a remote control. Tobias Wentzler, 27, an economic engineer, is in charge of the photos and his gaze is locked to the iPad in the controller that displays the live feed from the drone camera. He reads the data out loud for the pilot: “50 meters, 51, 52. Good, stay right there. A little closer.” Wentzler taps the touchscreen. A click and the photo is saved. “Now, go back down again, one meter per second.” Reitz lets the drone sink, while Wentzler snaps series of photos like a sports photographer at the finishing line. The men’s mission: to photograph every square centimeter of the rotor blade and generate a full digital image. The resulting data will be used by Nordex, one of the leading makers of wind energy generators, to determine whether the blade needs to undergo any repairs. Rotor blades like this can be hit by lightning. They are also often exposed to strong winds (up to 300 kilometers per hour at the tip) and centrifugal forces, so they are also susceptible to erosion. Even small patches can rapidly deteriorate, for instance in the winter when water gets in and freezes.
Early detection is crucial and just like aircraft, wind turbines undergo regular checks. Sometimes an inspection with binoculars is sufficient, but from time to time it is necessary to take close-up photos. Until now, this job was done by a pair of steeplejacks who would ascend the tower, abseil and take photos of the rotor blade. In Germany, there are around 26 000 wind turbines, with new ones going up every day. The first generation are now in need of more inspection and maintenance.
To tap into this market, Lufthansa Consulting launched a new unit: Lufthansa Aerial Services, which set up a close development partnership with Nordex to roll out the drone inspection service. “The demand for commercial drone services is rising steeply in many industries,” says Benjamin Löhr, 36, Business Development Manager at LAS. “However, operating these devices calls for great flying skills and regulations are likely to be tightened considerably in the near future.” For most businesses, setting up their own drone unit makes no economic sense and they are more likely to contract drone inspection services out to the experts. LAS offers sensor technology, hardware, software and data processing services: from 3-D models, digital elevation profiles, large bird’s eye views – the sky’s the limit when it comes to potential applications. “Drone technology is evolving at an incredible speed,” says Tobias Wentzler.
To develop its multicopters, LAS has signed a deal with Chinese enterprise DJI, the world’s leading commercial drone builder. Together, the partners are developing drones for commercial applications. LAS will be offering customized inspection and measuring solutions, and DJI will be providing support for technical implementation. Within the year, the LAS fleet will be expanded to include fixed-wing drones, which will increasingly allow for drone applications beyond visual range.
Today, pilot Michael Reitz is flying a Matrice 100 quadcopter manufactured by DJI. The price tag is around 3600 euros for the basic retail version; cameras and extras can soon inflate the price to 8000 euros. Reitz gently lands the drone on a rubber mat. The battery is empty, time for a short breather and a review. Tobias Wentzler looks at the photos on his laptop. “These images aren’t sharp enough, we’ll have to redo them,” he says. The wind and the weather seem to be in collusion to make their work as s difficult as possible. The sky is the same shade of gray-white as the rotor blades and there is little contrast, which the autofocus function depends on for good images. The men had planned 20 flights for today, but thanks to the autofocus issues and the wind they will need a few more. This means additional physical work for Michael Reitz. “Spending hours with your head tilted back is tough,” he says. At around 1 pm he brings the drone down for the last time. Instead of dropping it vertically, the RC master lets it roll a wide curve around the field in a brief display of playfulness which finally triggers a reaction from the cows in the next field, who raise their limpid eyes and watch as it touches down safely.