BladeBUG – enabling greener wind energy with robotics
An interview with founder Chris Cieslak
An interview with founder Chris Cieslak
EGGS are working together with BladeBUG, a UK-based robotics specialist, to further develop their maintenance and repair robot for wind turbines. The project is part of a €150k grant from RIMA (Robotics for Inspection and Maintenance) network. We met with BladeBUG’s founder and CEO, Chris Cieslak, to learn about his experience so far.
UK-based BladeBUG develops advanced robots that can remotely perform tasks independently or assist technicians in the inspection, maintenance, and repair of turbine blades. The robotic solution answers several of the wind energy industry's future challenges, especially in the offshore environment: Health & safety of workers, skill shortage to maintain the number of expected turbines, and the cost of maintaining larger turbines further from shore.
Chris, we're now over halfway through our project with RIMA, where EGGS are involved as a design partner. Would you be able to describe how the project started?
"I can’t believe we are halfway through the project already; the time has gone so quickly! We were very fortunate in how this project and collaboration came into existence - Kate Saunders, a senior digital and user experience designer from EGGS Design, heard about BladeBUG on BBC’s Radio 4 programme ’39 ways to save the planet’ and subsequently reached out to see if there were any challenges they could help support.
We had previously considered working with design consultancies; however, as a pre-revenue start-up, we had never been in a position where we could seriously consider bringing in specialist knowledge and skills to develop and improve the non-robotic elements of the robot. After initially speaking with you guys, learning and understanding what you do, encompassing such a depth and breadth of expertise in everything from strategy to customer journey mapping, all the way through to industrial and mechanical design, was fascinating. Straight away, it was clear that we wanted to find a way that we could work together.
Timing-wise it was perfect; there was an open call for a European grant available from the Robotic Inspection and Maintenance Association (RIMA). Together, we successfully applied for a 6-7month funded project that has enabled EGGS Design and BladeBUG to work together."
Can you tell us briefly about the project? What do you expect to achieve by the end of the RIMA project?
"The overarching objective is to enclose the BladeBUG robot and improve its ability to operate in conditions that are not suitable for humans, for example, operating on wind turbines in the rain, high wind speed, etc. But it is much more than just an environmental covering for the robot - the design also improves its useability, taking into account how and where people use the robot, how they interact with it, where the handles need to be, and how it does stow, for example.
By the end of the RIMA project, we expect to have a much-improved new physical version of our BladeBUG robot prototype with a new external casing on the main body and the six individual legs. Until now, our robots have been fairly exposed and open – you can see the wires on the legs and all the exposed hardware as they have been used for rapid development. This evolution of our robot will be used for demonstrations and trials with potential new clients and will be a giant leap forward for BladeBUG moving into the commercial world of robotics operations and maintenance."
We completed the first stage just before Christmas. How was the process?
"It wasn’t without its challenges. I know that everyone has become accustomed to working remotely and via teams and Miro boards etc; however, I think you still can’t beat a good old face-to-face meeting, getting hands-on with a product, mocking things up with paper and cardboard. Unfortunately, Omicron put the brakes on an in-person session before Christmas, which is a real shame as it would have been great for everyone to bounce ideas off each other and get to know one another better than you can through a screen.
We had to present our work and progress at a Stage 1 review session – we achieved an almost perfect score, so it is fair to say that the collaboration is going well, and the review panel from RIMA are pleased with how the project is progressing."
What were the major milestones or learnings from BladeBUGS's perspective?
"One of the most surprising milestones has been user journey mapping and end-user engagement. Throughout our development, we have always engaged with end-users and always considered them in the design. However, having each stage of the journey broken down and visually represented has helped focus and understand each part of the process and change some elements, such as the handle locations, to improve the end-user experience.
Agreeing on the look and the feel of the robot has also been key in progressing the design. In terms of learnings, it has been great to see some of the collaborative design tools and processes that EGGS use. It has been fascinating to see the templates you use and the processes in design ideation."
Now we’re almost at the end of stage 2. Can you describe what we’ve been focusing on so far?
"The focus has been on the waterproof casing, refining the selected concept, and modifying the robotic platform to simplify the waterproofing of the complex moving elements of the robot. This has involved weekly meetings, as well as working collaboratively on slack. This stage has been insightful, and we have seen the benefit of having fresh eyes look at the robot from a different perspective, resulting in a better robot beyond just a waterproof casing. Some of the challenges around waterproofing the robot has led to several significant improvements and simplifications to the electronics. It is fair to say that the process has been a lot more involved than simply covering the existing robot in fairings."
What has the experience of working with an external design and innovation team been like? Especially remotely and from two teams in three different countries!
"Working with you guys in EGGS has been a fantastic new experience for us. We have previously collaborated with organisations such as the Renewable Energy Catapult in the UK, but never on the development of the actual robot. Working in different countries hasn't been an issue, apart from sending a physical document to be signed via the British and Danish postal systems. Working remotely has worked well for us via regular video calls, Miro, and slack. A hidden benefit from working remotely across numerous countries has meant that we haven’t spent lots of time and money travelling, and it has also minimised the carbon footprint of this project. That being said, I would have loved some face-to-face time, especially during the early design phase. Having such an interesting physical robot, getting your hands on it and discussing ideas around it, sticking bits to it, moving it, rotating parts etc is easier and more dynamic than doing it virtually. Tools like Miro, Slack, and CAD have made all of this possible remotely. Still, it would have been nice to have been able to do it in person, and on a personal level, being able to go and grab some food and a beer afterwards is always an excellent way of getting to know people better."
How do you see the project influencing BladeBUG’s future innovation? What are the next steps?
"For BladeBUG, the overarching influence or lesson is that two minds are better than one. It has shown us that to get the best product, and user experience, collaborating with an external design company with experience and specialism is the way forward for us.
In terms of future development, there are many principles and processes that we will be adapting into our own design philosophy. However, we know what we are good at – designing robots to inspect and repair wind turbines. We now know where to go for everything from the UI/IX design to the industrial design of the robot.
The next steps, pun intended, for us are to get this new robot out and about in the real world, performing field trials and early adopter demonstrations. This year we are moving away from pure R&D to early commercial activity and taking the learnings from these increased operations to continually improve and develop the robot for the end-users."
Floating offshore wind opens up many countries' offshore wind potential where previously fixed turbines were unsuitable.Chris Cieslak, Founder and CEO, BladeBUG
What future challenges and opportunities do you see as a whole? How has the RIMA project helped to prepare BladeBUG for those challenges?
"The future for us is full of challenges and opportunities. This year is a pivotal year for us, we are moving from grant-funded R&D projects, and we will consolidate everything that we have been working on for the last four years and launch early commercial activity with clients.
The world is more aware than ever of the perils of climate change, and it is thrilling to see the growth of wind and other renewables. The recent Scotland announcement will increase the UK's offshore capacity by 2.5 times alone, which is just the tip of the iceberg. Floating offshore wind opens up many countries' offshore wind potential where previously fixed turbines were unsuitable. Over the next 20-30 years, the forecast growth is so strong that we are in an excellent position to capitalise and ensure that BladeBUG is the go-to device for maintaining these huge structures and ensure that they produce as much clean energy as possible, cheaply and safely.
The robot developed in this RIMA project will be key in getting those first customers to trial the robot. Having a higher functioning robot than we had at the beginning of the project and the whole user mapped will undoubtedly be beneficial. We know that this is only the beginning, and there is still a lot to develop, but the early adopters will be pivotal in defining how and what needs to be developed and improved on the robot."
Safe and efficient inspection of wind turbines