Drone Inspections for Wind Turbines in as Little as 15 Minutes: Korean Drone Software Company Nearthlab
Aug 26, 2021
By Jim Magill
A number of countries across the world increasingly are turning to wind generated electricity as a way to combat climate change, creating new opportunities for the commercial drone industry and related businesses. Using artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled drones and software, Nearthlab, a South Korea-based start-up company hopes to carve out a niche for itself in the rapidly growing global wind turbine inspection market. “Amid the green energy boom, drone inspection has become a favorable option for the owners and operators of wind farms,” Jay Choi, Nearthlab’s CEO and co-founder, said in an interview. With its autonomous drones, Nearthlab can conduct a drone inspection for a wind turbine in around fifteen minutes, far less time than that required for other inspection methods. The drone’s AI software allows the unmanned aerial vehicle to recognize the shape and position of the turbine’s blades and calculate the optimal flight path to conduct the inspection. “Using computer vision and AI software, the drone consistently flies along the blade while maintaining a close and constant distance to capture the smallest details,” Choi said. During its flight, the drone collects data and takes high-resolution photos. Then it uploads the information package to a data management platform for analysis. Once the data is received, the data management platform’s AI software will analyze it in order to detect any potential damages to the blades, and if it finds any defects the software will accurately determine the size and location of the damage, Choi said. “The inspectors can utilize this data to help them manage the overall operations, the maintenance and repair jobs,” he said. Combining space-age and down-to-earth technologies: drone inspection for wind turbines
Choi combined his education with aerospace engineering, with experience in the construction industry to come up with the inspiration for launching Nearthlab. A graduate of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, Choi said he had first become interested in aerospace upon visiting NASA when he was younger. “I had a dream of making robots and rovers and exploring space,” he said. After graduation, he worked as a process control and system engineer for Doosan Heavy Industries & Construction Co., where he learned that one of the most difficult and dangerous jobs on a construction site was infrastructure inspection. “Back then it was common to see people climbing to reach the top of the chimney that soars over 300 feet, and they would be hanging to the structure by a single rope,” he said. “That’s when I started to see the potential for drones.”
In 2015, Choi co-founded Nearthlab, with a former classmate, YoungSuk Chung, who now serves as the company’s chief technology officer. The privately held company was financed by $10 million in seed money invested by several venture capital firms. The company’s name is a composite of the words “near,” “earth” and “laboratory,” a reflection of Nearthlab’s focus on taking measurements from above the ground, yet not from as far away as outer space. “As satellites provided a new perspective from lower earth orbit, I saw the potential that drones can also provide data from near earth, closer than satellites,” Choi said. Headquartered in Seoul, the company has offices in Europe and the United States, the two regions that form the majority of the market for wind turbine inspection services. Software employed on multiple drone platforms
Choi said the company’s software can be used with different drone platforms, depending on the needs of the customers. The final assembly of Nearthlab’s products is done on the local level, in the company’s subsidiaries in the United States and Europe. “Our software can be adopted on different hardware. It can be utilized on US drones as well as Chinese drones. Both of them can do identical work,” he said. In addition, Nearthlab markets two of its own drone models, Nearth Wind Basic, whose base model is the DJI M20, and the Nearth Wind Pro, whose base model is the DJI M600. The Basic version features a 20.8-MP camera, capable of detecting defects as small as 1 millimeter in length. The Pro model features a 45.7-MP camera and is capable of spotting and recording defects of 0.3 millimeters or greater. While many prominent players across the globe offer similar wind turbine inspection services, Choi said Nearthlab’s AI-enabled software provides the key factor, which differentiates the company’s products and services from those of its rivals. Nearthlab has embedded AI into both of its major products, the drones themselves and the data management platforms. “On the drone, since we’re adapting computer vision and AI software, we were able to shrink down the weight and size of the hardware, so that we can focus on increasing the capacity of the drone — the sensors, the data quality — which will enhance the final result,” he said. “On the other part — the data management platform — AI shortens the turnaround time for the delivery of the data,” he said. This helps field managers cut down on the time needed to conduct routine maintenance and helps ensure a steady, uninterrupted flow of electricity to end-users. On the global level, Nearthlab focuses on facilitating onshore and offshore wind turbine inspection. But in its home country of South Korea, where wind energy programs are not as advanced as in other parts of the world, the company is offering its drone inspection services to other economic sectors. “In Korea, our portfolio spans over not just one industry but also oil and gas, railways, bridges and collecting towers. We pursue various fields, while we’re delivering drone-driven data,” Choi said. Meanwhile, in recent months the Korean wind power industry has seen a number of key developments, and Choi said he sees a huge potential for the industry to grow substantially in the near future. Over the next five years, with the expected growth of the wind industry and the increased digitalization of the energy industry in general, Choi said he expects to see substantial growth of Nearthlab’s business as well. “We really look forward to strengthening the market by providing the data and reliable inspection services. That’s how we’re helping the industry to go forward and go far higher,” he said. Jim Magill is a Houston-based writer with almost a quarter-century of experience covering technical and economic developments in the oil and gas industry. After retiring in December 2019 as a senior editor with S&P Global Platts, Jim began writing about emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, robots and drones, and the ways in which they’re contributing to our society. In addition to DroneLife, Jim is a contributor to Forbes.com and his work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, U.S. News & World Report, and Unmanned Systems, a publication of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.