The Chinese startup automating wind turbine inspections 

3 min read
Inspection drone with eolian turbines behind. (Image credit: BigStock/DPVUE Images)

Artificial intelligence (AI) startup Clobotics is looking to cash in on China’s massive wind energy boom, using its technology to automate turbine inspections that typically take up to six hours when done manually.

The backstory: Founded in 2016, Clobotics provides computer vision and data analytics solutions for the wind power and retail industries. The company aims to automate time-intensive processes through data analysis.

  • With headquarters in Shanghai and Seattle, Clobotics has partnered with companies including Shanghai Electric, LM Wind Power, Coca Cola, Concord New Energy, and GEV Wind Power.
  • The company was founded by executives from Chinese drone maker Ehang, including its former COO George Yan and Claire Chen, previously general manager of the company’s North American business.

Unique selling point: Clobotics claims to be able to complete inspections of wind turbines in 25 minutes, with the help of autonomous drones and its computer vision platform, a process that typically takes six hours when done manually. This could dramatically reduce labor costs and the amount of time a turbine is out of service during the inspection process.

  • Clobotics’ computer vision module can detect defects as small as 1 millimeter by 3 millimeters, the company says.
  • After an inspection is completed, images are uploaded to the cloud where the company’s analytics platform examines the imagery and identifies issues with the blades.
  • The company has forged several major partnerships with key players in the power generation industry.
  • Given the height of the turbines, automated solutions could dramatically decrease risks during inspections.

“We are committed to providing the best AI solutions to digitalize the traditional industries. When smart devices marry computer vision technologies, massive amounts of offline data are collected, recognized, and analyzed automatically through artificial intelligence.”

—Clobotics co-founder George Yan

The investors: Clobotics has attracted investors including GGV Capital, CDIB Capital, the overseas-focused investment arm of Taiwan-based China Development Financial, and CMC Capital. It most recently closed its $22 million Series Pre-B.

  • The company has secured a total of $43 million in funding, according to data from Crunchbase.

Present condition: Clobotics is currently seeking to increase its market share in the US and Europe. The company this year partnered with GEV Wind Power, a company providing wind turbine maintenance services globally, expanding the Chinese startup’s reach to North America, Europe, and Africa.

  • The company said shortly after its latest funding round that it would continue to seek growth in the US and European markets.
  • Nevertheless, leaders in the wind industry have warned that the protracted US-China trade war could hurt the development of the industry as a whole, as insiders fear that the cost of wind turbines could increase due to protectionist policies.
  • Meanwhile, the Chinese government has announced it will end subsidies for new onshore wind power projects by 2021.

The landscape: Drones have been used in inspections in the past, but Clobotics’ system includes autonomous drones that automate the process.

  • The company currently has few homegrown competitors, as the majority of the inspections are done manually. Nevertheless, a US-based rival has moved into China through a domestic tie-up.
  • California-based Sterblue has partnered with Chinese turbine inspection firm Winward to introduce its AI-based drone inspection platform to China.
  • The market is huge and is set to grow further. China installed nearly 20 gigawatts of capacity in 2017 alone and is home to the biggest onshore wind farm in its western province of Gansu.
  • The country will reach nearly 440 gigawatts of capacity by 2028, with onshore farms accounting for 84% of all new developments, research firm Wood Mackenzie said in a report from August.
  • Around 410 wind turbines are needed to produce 1 gigawatt of power, according to estimates by the US’ Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Prospects: Clobotics has in the past year seen increasing attention from new and old investors, closing two rounds of funding collectively worth $33 million. As developers rush to install new capacity before China drops subsidies in 2021, Clobotics could see a drastic increase in the adoption of its services.

The company has also not limited itself to the Chinese market, as it seeks to expand to offer its autonomous inspections globally and take advantage of the renewable energy boom that has arisen over escalating concerns over carbon emissions.