MotionLab.Berlin – Hardware Innovation Hub & Makerspace

How WindBox connects early generation wind turbines to modern and secure IT infrastructure

WINDBOX

A lot has happened in the last few years. Progress is happening and many areas are rapidly driving innovation. But despite this, there are still many things in which too little has changed – especially when it comes to social responsibility, climate justice and environmental protection.

 

And that is precisely where we see our responsibility. We make things right and wake up industries. We are shaking up those who have been asleep for so long. And we do it, with the most talented students and the strongest partners we could find. We make up for what didn’t happen. We MakeUp Internet of Things!

 

Together with CODE University for Applied Sciences, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) and the IoT+ Network, we developed the MakeUp Internet of Things incubation program. Over a period of two years, more than 130 students will complete the program and be trained as experts in the field of Internet of Things (IoT). The goal is to educate within IoT and promote the realization of IoT projects by combining technical knowledge with software programming and the construction of physical products. Today we get an exclusive insight into the project WindBox led by Julius and Fabian which connects early generation wind turbines to modern and secure IT infrastructure in order to allow for reliable remote monitoring and operation of a wind park’s systems.

Windbox Image

During the fall semester of 2021 at CODE University of Applied Sciences, several students had the opportunity to collaborate with MotionLab.Berlin and use their spaces and equipment to realise hardware projects. WindBox was fortunate enough to be one of these projects. The following aims to provide an overview of the project, a more in-depth look into our progress during the last few months, and an outlook into the future.

WindBox and the team

WindBox is an IoT project connecting early generation wind turbines to modern and secure IT infrastructure to allow for reliable remote monitoring and operation of a wind park’s systems. In addition to the WindBox hardware, we are developing a Software-as-a-Service management and monitoring platform to give our customers the freedom to control their infrastructure and reduce the amount of on-location interactions required to manage their systems. 

 

We build the WindBox on top of standardised and widely available technologies to seamlessly integrate into existing systems and networks. We use the existing uplinks or the mobile communications network with 4G and 5G connectivity to give our customers maximum flexibility in their installation choices. Additionally, we use standard and widely available hardware to enable customisations to our customers’ needs and allow for repairability in the future. After all, these are industrial machines that are critical for our society’s daily needs.

Windbox Image

The WindBox team currently consists of two members, Julius and Fabian. They are both enrolled in the software engineering bachelor’s degree program at CODE University of Applied Sciences. Shortly after they met, Julius instilled Fabian with his passion for electrical engineering and hardware development. Their friendship led to many fun side projects, many late nights solving problems, and employment opportunities. Employment is also where we connected to the wind power industry.

Julius de Weerth
Julius de Weerth
Fabian Ferdinand Volkers
Fabian Volkers

Since the start, we have been developing the WindBox in close partnership with WindReserve. They manage and service wind turbines, especially older ones built in the early 2000s. WindReserve has been supporting the project financially and operationally for the last year.

Timeline

This next section gives an overview of the journey we have been on so far. We will briefly look into the problem we have identified before we dive deeper into the development process and the challenges we have encountered along the way.

A preface to the semester

The start of the semester did not mark the beginning of this project. We realised there was a problem to solve when the three German telecommunications providers announced in the Fall of 2020 that they would be phasing out 3G connectivity starting 30 June 2021. With the announcement, Julius, working with WindReserve, started thinking about a new, more modern way of connecting WindReserve’s employees to the wind turbines under their supervision. Julius started experimenting with different hardware and software, and in early 2021, he convinced Fabian to join him in his endeavours. Fabian’s software knowledge was a fantastic addition to Julius’ hardware and networking proficiency. We developed the first hardware prototype with various free and open-source software programs during the summer and deployed this prototype in one of the wind parks managed by WindReserve.

Excitement at the Start

With the beginning of the semester came the collaboration with MotionLab. We were both very excited to meet the community and its experts. We were also eager to learn how to use the various machines MotionLab.Berlin provides to its members and start making crazy prototypes to elevate our software product to the next level. The MotionLab.Berlin team quickly introduced us to using the different machines in the hall through well structured interactive workshops. With the power of these tools in our hands, we felt like we could make anything. Nonetheless, aside from our intent to further develop the WindBox hardware, we had identified the need to develop a software platform to manage and monitor all the hardware we deploy in the wind park. So we began sketching out and planning our software architecture.

To the Drawing Board

Throughout the summer, we have explored and tested existing tools and technologies and identified those we want to integrate into our systems. Taking these as a starting point, we began ideating how to deploy, manage, and maintain these systems automatically. We started constructing a microservice architecture behind a unified frontend to enable employees to monitor and control the hardware. The plans became ever more massive, and we decided to spin off the part of the service controlling the wind turbines into a separate project. We are planning to realise this project in the future. After cutting out the turbine control service, the project became more apparent, and we wrote down the first lines of code.

Windbox Drawing Board
Drawing Board
Challenges during the semester

We quickly had the groundwork done and switched our focus to the hardware. We built another prototype, ran into expected and unexpected issues. After a few weeks, we deployed our second prototype in a wind park. This gave us a second prototype to test, but our options were limited as we deployed our prototype in a remote location in a running wind park. Meaning we could not fix it if we broke or misconfigured something that requires physical interaction. Suppose we broke it, we would be losing access to an operating wind turbine producing vital electricity for the citizens in the region. We resorted to replicating the remote setup locally as well as we could. However, we could never replicate the system entirely without building a wind turbine in the middle of Berlin. With the semester rapidly progressing, we struggled to manage both hardware and software development simultaneously. We continued to attempt working on both sides of the project but eventually realised it would get us further if we narrowed our focus onto one of them at a time. We switched back to developing our software, which we would need to have progressed with to get credits for our university degrees. Another challenge that we have yet to overcome is proper hardware and software integration. There are currently a decreasing but still noticeable number of manual steps involved in deploying the hardware. Some of these tasks only IT professionals can perform. So we travelled a bit and did it ourselves.

Highlights towards the end of the semester

Installing the prototype ourselves

 

November 2021 allowed us to climb up a wind turbine and install our prototype ourselves. WindReserve service staff installed the previous two. Besides the excitement of going up 100 meters onto this massive industrial machine, we were also really interested in the actual process of installing our prototype to find out if we could optimise anything in the hardware or software configuration.

Windbox
Windbox

Deploying our software

 

Besides our third prototype, we have also deployed the first iteration of our software platform. We extensively developed some of the APIs while leaving others a proof of concept, but it is there. We are looking forward to continuing working on this part of the project.

New Partnership

The last weeks of the year have also brought us a new partnership, 1NCE, a mutual member of the IoT+ network with MotionLab.Berlin and CODE. We are working with them and their mobile connectivity products to establish the network connection to our WindBoxes.

Look to the future

As can be gathered from this text, our project is well on the way yet far from a finalised product. We are looking forward to continuing the development of the product, potentially at MotionLab.Berlin. We have several ideas for hardware customisation and a lot of software work ahead of us. Once our software platform has a minimum of core features working securely and reliably, we want to integrate our prototypes into the system. We want to revisit our current choices on the hardware side to determine what we can streamline and improve. We are already thinking about ways to accurately monitor our hardware’s status to determine faults, especially during extreme weather. In the long term, once we have established the network infrastructure and communication to the wind turbines, we want to develop a platform to monitor and control the turbine and its power generation.

Windbox

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