3 Ways How Drones Are Revolutionising the Solar Industry

by Ken Khoo
Image by andreas160578 from Pixabay

The future is certainly bright for the Southeast Asian solar industry. According to consultancy Wood Mackenzie, the region’s cumulative solar photovoltaic capacity is expected to triple within the next few years, growing from 12.6 gigawatts in 2019 to a cool 35.8 gigawatts by 2024.

A major reason for the incredible growth has been solar power’s competitiveness against mainstream energy sources. The boom in production of photovoltaic panels has made solar energy an affordable power source, with the greatest benefit of sunlight being completely free!

Though photovoltaic systems require almost zero daily upkeep, it’s crucial that they are designed and maintained well, in order to maximise their overall lifetime performance.

By harnessing drone technology, solar energy companies have simplified highly technical workflows while keeping costs low. Here are three big ways that drones are impacting the solar industry.

1. Drones simplify surveying for new farm sites

For many new solar farms, the first challenge is to design a photovoltaic system configuration that is tailored to the lay of the land. Getting this right is essential, because solar photovoltaic systems last for over 25 years, which means any unoptimised land would accrue a significant revenue loss in the long run.

Nowadays, drones are one of the most efficient surveying tools for the job. With the release of RTK-equipped drones, such as DJI’s Matrice 300 RTK + Zenmuse H20T camera, you’re able to achieve centimetre-levels of precision with an aerial mapping drone.

The DJI Matrice 300 RTK equipped with Zenmuse H20T camera. Photo by DJI
Accurate real-time kinematic (RTK) positioning

Traditional methods of surveying use grounded tools, such as theodolites, to measure angles in order to determine distances and elevation between individual points. RTK drones are able to achieve similar levels of accuracy, while capturing detailed data over a wide area of land from high vantage points.

The ability of drones to capture high-resolution, terrain-sensitive maps makes them perfect for designing solar panel arrays on new farms. Using aerial analysis and visualisation software such as Airamap, surveyors can produce digital terrain models (DTM) and digital surface models (DSM) which enable precise solar farm site designing that takes advantage of the terrain.

Plan and optimise your photovoltaic system

3D aerial maps also provide meaningful analysis into irradiance factors. Solar farms are able to position solar panel arrays to capture the most energy possible, by accounting for sun positioning, shaded cover, and terrain conditions.

By measuring and optimising your solar panel system design, you’ll be able to project future solar energy output and future revenues years in advance, while having a benchmark to compare your year-on-year output, so you know you’re getting the most out of your photovoltaic system.

Image by Samuel Faber from Pixabay

2. Drones speed up solar panel inspection by a LOT

Though solar photovoltaic systems operate well without supervision most of the time, you’ll want to inspect them every year to catch any faults that are causing performance drops. Unfortunately, a major barrier for regular maintenance is the high cost of physical inspection work.

Large solar farms typically cover hundreds of acres, sometimes even thousands. This makes the task of physically inspecting every solar panel a slow and laborious one, which comes with an expensive price tag.

As a result, some solar farms resort to a sampling method, where only a certain percentage, say 20%, of solar panels are inspected each time. However, this method introduces a randomness factor, which can distort the data gathered.

By using thermal imaging cameras to detect any faults, drones dramatically speed up solar panel inspection work. Using a combination of high-resolution RGB and thermal cameras, drones can capture and measure the status of individual photovoltaic panels while in operation.

Normal RGB
Drone Camera

Thermal Camera
Captured Image

Example showing RGB vs thermal cameras in powerline inspection. Similar technology is used in solar panel inspection.
RGB and Thermal Camera Detection System

A thermal analysis of solar panel arrays reveals any surface temperature hotspots, which is typically a sign of malfunction which causes the photovoltaic cells to overheat, rather than convert light energy to electricity. Other faults detectable by a thermal camera include manufacturing defects, faulty inter-connectors, defective bypass diodes and temporary shadowing.

Meanwhile, an RGB camera detects external factors that might be impeding solar panel performance, such as obstruction due to dirt, debris, vegetation, animal nests and droppings; or infrastructure damage such as cracks on panels, visible shadowing, gaps in insulation and issues with sealing.

Example of a thermal heatmap analysis showing hotspots in solar panel arrays

Drones make it possible for you to identify problem areas and root causes across your entire solar farm at a glance, so you can strategically deploy technicians to address the issues quicker.

In fact, recent studies have shown that aerial inspection using drones is up to 24 times faster than manual inspection, and improves efficiency by up to 97%.

3. Drones automate data analysis, delivery and availability

Aerial inspection makes the sharing of information just a button-click away. Drones make it possible to digitalise your solar farm data, so you’re able to share information instantaneously with your team through the cloud.

Solar companies such as Soltage have taken advantage of aerial data to improve how they streamline their workflow. Using cost-effective, cloud-based strategies, Soltage grew their assets under management by nearly 60% and the number of megawatts under management by almost 130%.

Example of a thermal heatmap analysis showing hotspots in solar panel arrays

By automating your data sharing and communications workflow, you’ll free up large amounts of capacity from field workers and technicians, who would otherwise be spending time gathering the information they need, instead of fixing equipment on the field. On average, project managers spend 75-90% of their time communicating with their team, a capacity load which could be reduced with an automated information sharing system.

Cloud-based information system

Many drone software on the market handle the end-to-end processing of raw aerial data, including stitching, analysis and visualisation. Stitching is required to combine individually captured images into a whole.

Aerial analysis is executed by algorithms, which is programmed to detect and flag any signs of wear-and-tear and solar array faults using both RGB and thermal camera data. Through a continuous process of machine learning, modern algorithms have achieved a proven 99% accuracy rate, or better.

This information is used to generate strategic reports that highlight issues that need fixing, so you can prioritise and delegate with knowledge of the problem, saving time and resources for you and your team.

Photo by Daria Nepriakhina from StockSnap. Image by StockSnap from Pixabay
Laptop and smartphone connectivity

Most drone software are integrated across platforms, so you can access uploaded aerial data and reports remotely on your devices from files stored on the cloud. This ensures that your solar farm reports, both current or past, are securely archived and readily available at a button’s tap away.

This makes it easier for you and your team to review information during field inspection work, farm asset audits, productivity tracking, and at meetings while you’re on the go.

Our Recommendation

Check out our page on aerial infrastructure inspection to find out more about how drones can automate workflows for your solar farm.

Or, send us a message and one of our drone experts will be in touch to answer any questions you may have.

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