Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have relied more and more on innovations in the Energy sector to keep up with their insatiable demand for power. In this insight, wtake a look at some of the developments around powering industry, and keeping maintenance costs and downtime low. 

From renewable wind power to alternative uses for fossil fuels, the technology driving the Energy sector is hugely diverse.

UAVs for wind turbine inspection

Inspection is an essential aspect of operations and maintenance (O&M) in many industrial settings, and inspection in the Energy sector presents some particularly unique challenges. Wind turbines can be up to 250m high with blades reaching over 100m in length1 and, by their very nature, are often in remote and wind-swept locations.

Assessing each turbine within an on- or offshore wind farm using the traditional methods of ropes or elevated platforms is both dangerous and hugely time-consuming, and those factors together make it expensive. Cameras on the ground can be used for visual inspection, but errors can easily be missed. Remote controlled UAVs are transforming the inspection process as they are able to perform accurate inspections much more quickly and safely.  

The environmental conditions for these inspection drones present multiple challenges. Extremes of temperature, high levels of dust in arid regions and high salinity in offshore installations all mean that UAVs must be ruggedly built and rigorously tested before being deployed. Add to that the high winds and huge turbulence created by the massive blades, and it’s clear that drone operation and communication are likely to be tested to the limit. 

Batteries for UAVs must be reliable and lightweight and there’s a happy medium to find in terms of balancing this power to weight ratio. Longer flights are more cost-effective than multiple, shorter ones so it’s important to get the right power supply. Similarly, communication between the vehicle and the controller, or even between multiple drones, is paramount but a drone must remain aerodynamic and agile without being restrained by protruding antennas. Transmission must be able to navigate around obstacles and through turbulent air flows. Video and image capture needs to be high-resolution and easy to process. Technicians will find themselves with thousands of images and hours of video to monitor, and machine learning techniques and developments in AI are helping to accurately identify flaws, oil leaks and damage to the turbines faster and more reliably than the human eye.  

Of course, UAVS designed for inspection of wind turbines will also be suited to other Energy processes such as surveying dams providing hydroelectric power and examining vast areas of solar panels, where similar difficulties arise. 

Our battery experts have decades of experience in designing and building battery packs for challenging applications. Inspection drones have very specific requirements and our team will advise designers on the best size, shape and performance options, whether that’s using Lithium-ion based cells or alternative chemistries. Furthermore, Steatite manufactures and supplies custom Battery Management Systems (BMS) which optimise the lifetime and performance of any battery pack as well as keeping the pack safe. 

Steatite’s Communications business unit provides market-leading wireless RF Unmanned Communication solutions which are ideal for ground-to-air contact and control. Based on the functional MPU5 radio unit, the Embedded Module provides built-in HD video encoding, Ethernet, RS-232 over IP, range extension, and an extremely high throughput Mobile ad hoc network (MANET) to make sure operators have secure, consistent and practical communication with their UAV. 

For compact and powerful image capture and transmission, our imaging subsidiary, Active Silicon, has a range of autofocus-zoom cameras and versatile camera interface boards which makes imaging simple. Cameras and processor boards can output in several formats including HD-SDI, USB3, HDMI and Ethernet IP meaning image data can be processed by a wider range of software. 

Crawler robots for nuclear inspection

When nuclear power plants were first built, inspection had to be carried out by humans operating for short periods of time so as to not expose themselves to dangerous levels of radiation for too long. Thankfully, robotic solutions were quick to make an appearance, and even by the 1980s non-destructive examination (NDE) was automated in many plants.

The first systems were large, inflexible and required assembly onsite. Developments over the last decade or so have transformed inspection capabilities with the introduction of highly technical climbing and crawler robots. 

Requirements of crawler robots are mostly fourfold: the device must have the mechanics and power to move, roll or climb as required; the ability to capture images and video footage in a suitable format; tools to navigate around tanks, pipes and platforms; and the necessary software to make judgements on the flaws or leaks that it “sees”. Many robots are additionally fitted with gas detection instruments to identify invisible gas seepages. Another complication is that water and chemical storage tanks need to be inspected inside and out, so some robots are required to successfully operate underwater. Robots and ROVs must be exceptionally agile, being required to turn on a small axis to get in and out of tight spots, and rotate around the whole circumference of pipes, internally and externally. This will require compatibility with slip rings for robots operating with an umbilical cord. 

Through its imaging business unit, Steatite provides a range of cameras and interface boards which are capable of transmitting high-speed, high-resolution image and video data along very long cables even over slip rings. The use of High-Definition Visually Lossless CODEC (HD-VLC™) technology means that our Harrier range of cameras and processor boards can transmit over twisted pair cables up to 150m and coax cables up to 700m, with fibre optic offering the option of many kilometres.  

The Steatite Power team are well used to customising battery packs for specific applications such as remote inspection, and can design and manufacture housing that can withstand high levels of dust, vibration and water ingress. Our embedded computing capabilities add intelligence and powerful processing to robotics and ROVs, often being based on an NVIDIA Jetson AI-ready solution. 

Position/Navigation/Time (PNT) components supplied by Steatite can be built into ROV and robot solutions to add precise location and navigational capability. Using both GNSS and an IMU (inertial measurement unit), the units benefit from low SWaP (Size, Weight and Power) ratio and are designed to military-grade shock, vibration and EMC standards.

Meeting battery requirements for oil and gas

While the drive for cleaner, renewable energy is surging, we can’t avoid the truth that fossil fuels are still currently essential in our energy grids. In 2019, it was estimated that gas provided 38,517 terawatt hours and oil 53,620 terawatt hours of our power – roughly doubled from the provision in 19802

Oil and gas can be broken into three branches – upstream (exploration and extraction), midstream (storage and transport) and downstream (refining and distribution).

Each of these branches has specific requirements when it comes to developing technical solutions and the good news is that these developments will inevitably also benefit other areas of industry and research. 

At the upstream phase, the downhole environment is particularly challenging for batteries, with extremes of temperature, shock and vibration way beyond that found in other harsh environments. Due to oil and gas field locations, temperatures at the surface can drop to -40°C while operating temperatures underground can easily reach 180°C. Luckily, Steatite has a range of battery packs for use in the oil and gas industry that are UN approved for transportation, and highly suited for use with industry standard tools and gauges.  

Similar to the robotic inspection devices mentioned above, requirement for pigging batteries are also complex. Supplying reliable and rugged battery packs for PIGS (pipe inspection gauges) allows critical data to be continuously and accurately collected to monitor the condition of pipelines in the midstream phase. 

Tools used in the upstream phase for refining and distributing oil and gas are subject to hazardous and potentially explosive conditions. Steatite supplies ATEX batteries for such environments, specifically designed to conform to European Union directive 94/9/EC. This means that battery-powered equipment for use in such conditions provides increased levels of protection to operators. Furthermore, our power experts will select the optimum chemistry and cell design for the varied complications presented by fuel distribution. 

The Energy sector is transforming rapidly as it adapts to pressures from depleting natural resources and demands for more sustainable output. Global leaders are under pressure to reduce their national reliance on fossil fuels to help meet stringent targets for greenhouse gas emissions and greatly reduce harmful pollutants. Pressure from environmental organisations will only increase in the coming years, and energy providers are quickly adapting existing skills and adopting new methods of producing cleaner energy. 

The technology supporting this industry therefore has to transform too, and Steatite products and expertise are enabling developments across the globe. One such area is that of energy storage, and we can advise on power packs with larger capacities and more gradual discharge to meet these requirements.

Read more about our capabilities in the Energy sectorhttps://www.steatite.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/Steatite_Capability_Datasheet_07_2020_Rev-5.pdf