Solar industry looks to drones for competitive edge

Solar industry looks to drones for competitive edge

drones on solar farms
Drones are taking off in the energy industry. (PrecisionHawk)

Drones are being used to help build and maintain solar farms around the world in the battle against climate change.

The pressing need for renewable and inexpensive sources of energy is widely recognized. Solar power, in particular, has long been lamented as a ‘nearly-but-not-quite-there’ option, symbolic of a green energy sector yet to fulfill its promise.

Its critics argue that it’s difficult to set up and maintain, as well as being expensive and inefficient. But things are looking up. As with a raft of industries from agriculture to real estate, solar power has been introduced to the potential of drone technology.

An eye in the sky

High-quality aerial footage doesn’t only find a use in Hollywood. Small drones armed with the latest cameras can scout prospective locations before solar farm projects are started. By mapping the land below down to the nearest millimeter, solar companies can cut costs, minimize environmental impact and use land as efficiently as possible. This kind of attention to detail at the project design stage can help renewable energy providers compete with fossil fuel power in the long run.

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Speaking to the Guardian, Tom Werner, CEO of US energy company SunPower, revealed that the application of drone technology during the planning stages allows his team to design solar projects 90 percent faster.

Incremental improvements in the way large-scale solar projects are planned and executed could boost growth in renewables. The US Energy Information Administration expects an increase in the number of solar power plants built and their influence on worldwide energy production. And although solar power accounts for only a small fraction of US energy provision, it’s among the fastest-growing sources of new electricity generation.

Speaking to Internet of Business, Sam Johnson from UK commercial drone operator Vertex Access pointed out that, as well as mapping locations for potential builds, “drones can be used to take progress photographs during the building and installation of a solar farm. Clients can track progress using aerial photos,” he said.

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Drones provide ongoing support to solar farms

It’s not only during the planning and building stages that drone technology can support solar energy projects. A combination of skilled pilots, clever software and specialized aerial attachments can keep solar farms operating at maximum capacity.

It’s widely known that drones are revolutionizing the world of agriculture. Many of the same techniques can be applied to solar farms; namely, the use of preset flight paths, multispectral sensors and thermal imaging cameras.

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Autonomous missions can be pre-planned with GPS waypoints. The drone can then quickly identify hot spots (defective panels give off more heat), glass cracks and connection problems from above. With many solar farms covering dozens of acres, total aerial coverage now comes at a relatively cheap price.

The benefits drone technology could have on the solar industry are becoming clear at a time when regulations governing commercial use are starting to relax. In August 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted its first waiver for beyond-line-of-sight flight to commercial drone giant PrecisionHawk. It’s expected that commercial restrictions globally will steadily relax as industries clamor for the clear advantages of drone technology.