Since graduating from Imperial with a Master’s degree in Composite Materials, Chris Cieslak (MSc Aeronautics 2010) has been designing and building wind turbine blades. It’s invigorating work, but keeping the giant blades – which are permanently exposed to the elements – clean and operative is a constant challenge. That’s why Chris has launched BladeBug Limited, a new company that is developing a robotic device to inspect and maintain the turbines. The Alumni Relations team caught up with Chris to see how things were going...
How did your time at Imperial help prepare you for your subsequent career?
Studying at Imperial both deepened my academic knowledge and paved the way for my first significant job in blade design, which was a giant stepping stone. I’d say the fact that my application came from Imperial definitely made a difference – it just plays well in this industry. It also helped that quite a few Imperial alumni already worked there.
Tell us about Imperial’s White City Incubator and how it helped you...
The White City Incubator is a brilliant facility filled with laboratories, offices and meeting rooms, which is expressly designed to support entrepreneurs and early-stage companies. I greatly benefitted from participating in their Innovators Programme, where I got free access to work space, top equipment and expert advice over four weeks. I also met some really inspiring people and made connections that have been critical in helping build my business.
What is your fondest memory of your time at Imperial?
Unquestionably, the camaraderie with other students. We worked hard together and grew very close, and I’m still in touch with a lot of them. I also found the lecturers friendly and approachable. It was reassuring to know that they were in your corner.
So, BladeBug. Talk us through the basic idea…
The idea came from working as a blade designer. Often there are problems once the blades are out in the field, which means rope-access technicians have to abseil down them – and that obviously becomes more dangerous and expensive with off-shore turbines. I just thought there must be a better way and so came up with the idea for BladeBug – a little robot that walks along the blade surface to carry out maintenance and inspections. I thought about this idea for a long time until finally I could no longer convince myself it was just a crazy whim. So I decided to leave my job and give it a go.
By how many years could your product extend the potential life-span of a turbine blade?
Turbine blades have a design life of 20-25 years, but that depends a lot on how they’re treated and maintained. Recently, turbine owners have been realising that it really does pay to properly maintain their product and manufacturers have also seen the profit potential in offering additional care. My idea fits snugly in the middle of those two needs, which makes good business sense. And besides, bringing down the cost of maintaining blades ultimately benefits everyone. It really is a win-win.
What does a typical day look like for you? Is there a typical day?
At the moment, I’m afraid not. I’m currently alternating between putting together funding proposals and exploring the equipment in the fabulous new ‘hack space’ [officially called the Invention Rooms] in White City. It’s an amazing location and I’ve been granted the rather excellent title of ‘Hacker in Residence’, which basically allows me unrestricted access in return for helping out fellow hackers when required. That means I have a work base, the best possible equipment and the potential to meet future business partners (or BladeBuggers) once the students return from summer break.
You’ve had an interesting career so far, which includes working on the structural design for Anish Kapoor’s iconic shiny ‘bean’ sculpture in Chicago. How does that feel?
I only saw the sculpture in the flesh for the first time last year. During its design, I was always just looking at a computer screen or dealing with intricate design details. So when I saw this giant sculpture and all those people milling around and taking photos, it was incredibly humbling. It’ll be there for a hundred years, long after I’m gone.
As if that wasn’t enough, you worked on the wingsail design for SailRocket 1, which was designed to break the world speed sailing record. Tell us about that project...
I did the structural design for the boat’s sailing blade, before it endured a spectacular crash during its world record attempt in 2008. But our boat paved the way for SailRocket 2, which did go on to break the world speed sailing record. The guys who owned that project were incredibly inspiring and had such relentless drive. They showed me that a small team with limitless self-belief can achieve pretty much anything.
What’s the toughest professional problem you’ve cracked? Your personal Eureka moment…
I’m sure there are many tough problems and Eureka moments still to come. But one of my biggest design challenges came from working on Anish Kapoor’s giant Memory sculpture, which had to fit very snugly into two separate venues: the Guggenheim New York and Guggenheim Berlin. So when that actually worked out, it was a good day. The thing is, when you’re modelling and building projects on a computer, you never know for certain that it’ll work – until it does.
Do you have any advice for current young innovators?
Anything is possible, and the Imperial hack space is specifically designed to turn any ideas into reality. The 3-D printers, for example, are incredible. I can draw something, then be holding it in my hands within a matter of hours. Such developments have revolutionised prototype design and opened up so many possibilities for the next generation.
There’s a quote by Samuel Beckett: ‘Try. Fail. Try again. Fail better.’ As a technical innovator, you’re constantly having to learn from mistakes. Where does your persistence comes from?
That’s simple: I realise that it doesn’t matter if you fail. In fact, failures are generally a lot more insightful – and often, just more fun – than the eventual successes that follow. As for persistence, my dad was an engineer so it was natural for me to open things up to either repair them or just see how they worked. I always had an inquisitive streak and a desire to make things work better. And I don’t quit easily.