Sabca drones to watch over wind farms in the North Sea

Sabca and Deme Offshore have carried out tests in wind farms off the Belgian coast. Objective: to demonstrate that drones provide relevant and safe solutions.

More than three years after announcing its intention to diversify into the unmanned vehicle market, the Sabca hits the nail on the head: the Belgian aeronautical equipment manufacturer has carried out, in recent months, in partnership with Deme Offshore, the subsidiary of the dredging and marine engineering group specializing in offshore wind power, several operations intended to demonstrate the maturity of solutions carried out by drones in offshore.

A fixed-wing drone de la Sabca was thus the first commercial craft to fly over the North Sea and cross the border with the Netherlands to get to the Rentel wind farm, located 35 km from the Belgian coast, in order to carry out various missions. At the same time, a second multicopter type aircraft, which had taken off from a ship, also carried out a number of specific tasks in the wind farm.

“We are in a sector where we try to minimize human intervention.”

Bart De Poorter

General Manager of Deme Offshore

The two drones operated in full automatic mode – they had been programmed and were not piloted -, at a distance beyond the line of sight. A series of operations that were not simple, according to Steven Wille, director of the business unit “unmanned systems” at Sabca: “we had to convince two national air transport authorities to let our drones fly automatically, without visibility and without risk of accident with wind turbines that are worth millions. ”

What missions?

The drone inspections are already offered by other companies, but generally for simpler and smaller missions, with remote-controlled devices at short distance. Here, la Sabca and Deme have raised the bar.

The long drone scope has demonstrated its ability to detect both mammals – work in wind farms must be stopped if whales are found nearby – as well as ships, who should be warned when approaching the farm or when their emissions are too high. The device is also able to detect A man of the sea and coordinate the rescue with another drone. The multicopter drone, for its part, was used for a autonomous wind turbine inspection, the execution of freight transport between ships and the dropping a buoy safety.

“We want to provide manufacturers who are not in aeronautics with aeronautical-level solutions.”

Thibauld Jongen

CEO of Sabca

“There is a wide range of possibilities. We are in a sector where we try to minimize human intervention. We are also looking to replace the missions which are expensive ” explains Bart De Poorter, General Manager of Deme Offshore, who points out that the company had already used commercially purchased drones to monitor the volumes of dredging used for the creation of sites.

“Aeronautical level solutions”

“But these drones often broke down, because of the saline environment, which is corrosive” remembers Bart De Poorter. This is how contact was made with the Sabca, whom Deme had asked to find out where the problem lay. The aircraft manufacturer then proposed other solutions to explore.

“Our vision today is very clear” specifies for his part Thibauld Jongen, CEO of Sabca: “we want to provide manufacturers who are not in aeronautics with aeronautical-level solutions, to better carry out their operations and better serve their own customers. We fly over cities. We are transporting medical equipment. We fly over very expensive assets, nuclear power plants, off-shore wind turbines. But these must be affordable and useful solutions, ”argues the boss.

An industrial approach

According to him, his company is well placed because it is the right size. “We cannot be confused with a small start-up that just does demonstrations. We offer a real industrial approach. What we are trying to bring in addition is the autonomy aspect. Our goal is to arrive at completely automated solutions “he says..

La Sabca had already carried out an exercise above Antwerp, between two hospitals.

“At the same time, we are small enough to be flexible and listen to our customers, without imposing a solution on them, as large players in the aerospace industry might do.” La Sabca also does not want to position itself as a drone manufacturer, but as an integrator of solutions. With two options: “either build a complete solution that integrates all aspects: maintenance, insurance, inspections, staff training, control stations, flight plans, security, etc. Either operate this solution ourselves. We have all the historical skills for this and this allows us to use everything we have in our core business, for example at the spatial level ”.

The regulatory obstacle

There remains one last obstacle to be overcome before marketing: regulations. “We have to demonstrate that we are able to fly safely with civilian traffic. We have to educate the authorities and the clients. This is why we have to accumulate flight hours. It is an element of differentiation “concludes Thibauld Jongen.

La Sabca had already carried out an exercise above Antwerp, between two hospitals. But this type of theft remains for the moment still prohibited. On the other hand, she has just received an authorization to make as many flights as she wishes from Ostend airport.

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