How Can Drones Slash Offshore Wind Costs?

December 01, 2023 by John Nieman

Offshore wind farms offer access to an abundant natural energy source: strong winds that whip across the ocean surface. Servicing these farms can be costly and time-consuming, but drone technology could help.

As the use of renewable energy increases, wind power technology has steadily caught up with solar innovations at the forefront of this renewable energy shift. Researchers have found that some of the ideal locations to capture wind energy have limited accessibility because they are in the ocean and a significant distance from shore. New turbine designs have made offshore wind farms possible, but servicing them is complex. 


Offshore wind farm.  

Offshore wind farm. Image used courtesy of the California Energy Commission 


But thanks to drone technology improvements, one company is flying cargo and supplies to offshore wind farms to streamline maintenance.


The Challenges Offshore Wind Infrastructure 

Wind’s potential is not being maximized just yet. Wind power only accounts for 6% of the world’s electricity production, even though potential wind power from both onshore and offshore sites is more than 35% of the world’s electricity demand.  

Wind farms are often associated with desert landscapes and mountainous locations where changes in topography create consistent and dependable wind energy worth capturing. But offshore locations are, in fact, better sites for wind farms because wind velocity is higher and more dependable in these marine environments. Onshore wind farms produce approximately 2.5 MW of wind energy annually, while offshore farms generate up to 3.65 MW annually. 


Offshore wind energy annual projections.

Offshore wind energy annual projections. Image used courtesy of Statista


Engineers have been able to design a variety of turbines to serve these offshore locations despite the difficulty of floating some turbines rather than anchoring them to the sea floor. With this design success came yet another challenge—servicing these farms. 

Offshore wind farms have higher installation costs, typically 20% more than their onshore counterparts. Even more significant, the continual maintenance required is costly and difficult. 

In addition to obstacles posed by cable routing and corrosion caused by saltwater exposure, offshore wind farms are difficult to maintain for the very reason they are great energy producers: high winds and unpredictable weather make human intervention expensive and inconvenient. 

Smart sensor technology is improving offshore turbine maintenance and minimizing the need for human intervention. Yet, there are still issues with shutting turbines down for safety during farm repair schedules. Part of what makes such maintenance difficult is the distance from the shore. This requires transport vessels, fuel use, and manpower to make repeated trips, sometimes up to 15 miles, to service the farm. 

Reducing this distance is a straightforward intervention to ease maintenance challenges, but various stakeholders want to push offshore wind farms further out to sea. Recently, New Jersey county filed a lawsuit against a federally approved offshore wind farm currently in development. The county is worried that the wind farm will adversely impact tourism and diminish the attractiveness of local beach destinations. 

With all these maintenance obstacles and conflicting interests, drone technology can provide a new layer of efficiency and feasibility for offshore wind farm operations. 


The Role of Drones at UK’s Hornsea 1 Offshore Wind Farm

As drone technology advances, new applications are continually being discovered, and Ørsted has become the first company to deploy drones in service of its offshore wind farm in the U.K. Hornsea 1, located 74.6 miles (120 km) from land, is so large that it can supply clean energy to over 1 million homes in the U.K., making it a key contributor to carbon footprint reduction. 

Now, Ørsted is reducing the costs and risks of maintenance by instituting drone support to deliver cargo to the turbines without shutting the farm down. Not only does this prevent operation losses, but it also minimizes human labor. Frequent trips by sea vessels are time-consuming and waste fuel, so drones that can transport up to 150 pounds are being launched for the first time to transform offshore wind farm maintenance. 


Drone being prepared for delivery to an offshore wind platform.

Drone being prepared for delivery to an offshore wind platform. Image used courtesy of Ørsted


The environmental impact is significant, as less fuel will be needed for maintenance transport. This can be substantial when considering the many miles and repeated trips that must be made to offshore farms worldwide. 

While further experimentation is needed to maximize the operational utility of drones for offshore wind farms, Ørsted has helped apply existing drone technology to the wind power energy sector, which is growing by the day.