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VIDEO: Grand Forks startup creates software for aerial wind turbine inspection

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An unmanned aircraft piloted by Andrew Schill prepares to land Thursday during a demonstration in the office of EdgeData. By Brandi Jewett/Grand Forks Herald.2 / 9
Pilot Andrew Schill flies an DJI Inspire 1 around a wind turbine blade Thursday in the UND Tech Accelerator. Photo by Brandi Jewett/Grand Forks Herald.3 / 9
Director of Operations Greg Thorsteinson (left) and President Chris Shroyer of EdgeData stand next to SkySkopes President Matt Dunlevy on Thursday near a wind turbine blade tip in EdgeData's office. Photo by Brandi Jewett/Grand Forks Herald.4 / 9
A spot of erosion the size of a penny is the type of damage EdgeData's software is looking to find and catalog on wind turbine blades. Photo by Brandi Jewett/Grand Forks Herald.5 / 9
EdgeData President Chris Shroyer points out damage to a wind turbine blade Thursday in an image collected by an unmanned aircraft and analyzed by his company to Doug McDonald, director of special operations for Unmanned Applications Institute International. By Brandi Jewett/Grand Forks Herald.6 / 9
Following a flight, pilot Andrew Schill removes the propellers from a DJI Inspire 1 unmanned aircraft Thursday before packing it back into its storage case. Photo by Brandi Jewett/Grand Forks Herald.7 / 9
SkySkopes pilot Andrew Schill guides an unmanned aircraft around the tip of a wind turbine blade Thursday in the office of EdgeData, located in the UND Tech Accelerator. Photo by Brandi Jewett/Grand Forks Herald.8 / 9
Picture taken by unmanned aircraft. Photo courtesy of SkySkopes.9 / 9

A pockmark the size of a penny on a 154-foot wind turbine blade doesn't look like much, but with time can turn one into a menace.

If left unattended, the damage could grow and result in expensive repairs, the likes of which Grand Forks startup company EdgeData is trying to prevent through inspections completed by unmanned aircraft.

EdgeData employees aren't behind the controls of the aircraft but rather the digital platform analyzing photos collected by a camera attached to the device.

"We take images of wind turbines in the field and turn that into consumable data," EdgeData President Chris Shroyer said Thursday.

A spot of erosion the size of a penny is the type of damage EdgeData's software is looking to find.Cameras mounted on unmanned aircraft are capable of capturing hundreds or thousands of pictures in a single flight, but those images may be unusable unless processed in a way that shows the customer exactly what they want to see, including the location of potential problems on a blade.

EdgeData combines multiple pictures to form one image, such views of a blade from root to tip from several perspectives.

"Instead of looking at 900 pictures, we're only looking at five," Director of Operations Greg Thorsteinson said.

The software, called BladeEdge, allows the company to remove organic material, such as dirt and bird feces, from images so customers can get a better picture of damage to a blade. The analysis produced by the company's software also tracks the conditions of blades and automatically sets up maintenance cycles.

Inspection progress

Maintaining a database of information about blade condition is critical for turbine owners and manufacturers.

EdgeData's software allows owners to track repair needs and provides manufacturers with information about their product's performance.

In Grand Forks, one of those manufacturers is LM Wind Power, which produces three types of wind blades and is often the first point of contact when customers notice something is wrong with their turbine.

Catching problems early is key to prolonging the life of the blades, according to John Jeno, senior engineering manager at LM Wind Power Blades Inc.

"Blades are a wear item—they need to be maintained. And if you catch (damages) when they're small, it's a very simple, fast fix," Jeno said. "If you don't take care of it and a year goes by, then you're talking about a couple of guys and climbing platforms. ... That becomes an expensive repair."

SkySkopes pilot Andrew Schill guides an unmanned aircraft around the tip of a wind turbine blade Thursday.Under normal conditions, the blades spin at about 100 mph. Buildup from bugs, dirt, dust and bird feces all affect the blades performance, as do collisions with objects such as hailstones and grit, which erode the protective coating on the blade.

"If you lose some of these coats, especially on the leading edge (of the blade), it can degrade very quickly and rapidly," Shroyer said.

Finding erosion, cracks and other damage falls to an inspection crew. Without an unmanned aircraft, a three-man crew climbing the structure would complete an inspection on one turbine in the course of a day.

"You're hanging a guy off a rope with a three-man team, and that's expensive. It's time-consuming and it puts somebody at risk," Jeno said. "Or you're bringing in a crane to get up 345 feet."

The high cost of inspections means some turbine owners defer maintenance until a problem grows too large to ignore. The use of unmanned aircraft will likely bring a level of affordability to inspections that will allow owners to perform them more often on their turbines, Jeno said.

The aircraft coupled with the software is expected to make quick work of future inspections, with Shroyer predicting as many as 10 a day once technology is advanced enough. For now, he estimates a unmanned aircraft system team could complete five inspections a day.

In-house flights

EdgeData has had opportunities to put its software to the test in the region and on the East Coast, as its crews have flown around turbines in North Dakota and Massachusetts.

The company also has sections of turbine blades mounted in its office, located in the UND Tech Accelerator. The presence of the parts allows the company to conduct research when weather conditions outside are not ideal, Shroyer said.

A 23-foot blade tip—an entire blade is about 154 feet—stands upright in the office and, complete with nicks and other damage to be detected during flights, serves as a practice specimen.

As Edgedata deals in data analysis, it partners with other firms to complete flights. In Grand Forks, one possible partner is another startup, SkySkopes, which offers aerial photography and video services for inspecting infrastructure.

Following a flight, pilot Andrew Schill removes the propellers from a DJI Inspire 1 unmanned aircraft Thursday."EdgeData is an asset to the (UAS) ecosystem, especially locally," Skyskopes President Matt Dunlevy said, referring to the fact that small UAS-related companies in Grand Forks usually have a specialization and, therefore, often form partnerships with one another to conduct research and advance the technology.

Founded in December, EdgeData has operated from its current office since May.

The month prior, it received a $450,000 grant from Research ND, a program facilitated by the state Department of Commerce.

With a specialty in data, the company has a number of security measure in place to protect the data it captures for customers. Larger data collection means more security rules, as some wind farms are considered critical power infrastructure and need to be protected from hacking.

"Security is the highest priority," Thorsteinson said.