Drones are now established tools in agriculture. Besides mapping and the automated spreading of pesticides, they can be used to scout crops from above and assess a farm’s health with a range of sensors and analytics programs.
The technology that has already been used in mapping, scouting crops from above, the automated spreading of pesticides, etc. in agriculture, is ideally suited for the renewable energy industry as well. In fact, this same technology is now widely used on solar farms.
Because drones can be quipped with thermal cameras, inspections can be done rapidly and safely and engineers can scan solar panels and detect if there are problems that otherwise might take a long time to discover, or be overlooked.
In spite of the promise that the solar industry has for future development, varying weather conditions, darkness and infrastructure are issues which need to be resolved and it is believed that the most hopeful insights will come from drone technology (“aerial insights”).
DroneBase partnered with FLIR last year to offer thermal imagery to customers around the world and provide their pilot network with training through the FLIR Infrared Training Center. The purpose was to democratize drone flights with thermal sensors, which would hopefully benefit the solar industry.
An example of the progress in drone technology and how it can be successfully applied to the renewable energy sector, is the case of an East Coast industrial plant that had experienced a significant reduction in energy production from its 36,000-square-foot solar field, for months. The plant’s maintenance team had not been able to find any problems with the solar panels during routine thermal/infrared monitoring from the ground.
Infrared Testing Inc. (ITI), a Chicago-based thermographic testing company, brought in a custom drone equipped with high-resolution digital and infrared cameras to this particular solar field, and connected to GPS satellites by real-time kinematic (RTK) positioning.
As a result, images from the drone showed numerous defective cells on 30 solar panels.
Traditional thermographic inspections of rooftop solar fields are very difficult, because there is usually very little space under the panels to get straight-on, close-up images when crawling. Therefore, technicians climb to the roof and walk the perimeter, scanning the rows of solar panels at an angle, which makes it more difficult to detect anomalies, so such data also becomes less reliable because of reflections. By flying a drone over the roof close to each panel, the reflections are reduced, which enables the drone to capture more accurate images.
Wind energy, like solar energy, needs to be as efficient as possible to achieve the best output, and is thus reliant on complex infrastructure, and drones are making a huge mark by transforming inspections on wind farms. Wind turbines, whether on shore or offshore, are vulnerable to the elements as they operate and even minor damage can cause inefficiencies and thus wasted energy.
The traditional approach to inspections has involved teams of workers climbing on structures or using harnesses and ropes to maneuver around a turbine to examine each blade, which is a very slow, labor-intensive, and unsafe approach, a job that could take days. In contrast, drones can radically reduce the time — hours instead of days — that engineers need to spend in often difficult and dangerous, precarious positions by their coverage of turbines.
Instead of using a manned crew inspecting the wind turbine inspections on an irregular schedule, because using drones is so much easier and faster, it is also a lot cheaper, and therefore such inspections can take place frequently so that the wind operations can keep working continually.
Aerones is a Latvian startup company that has found a way for drones to actively take part in wind turbine maintenance by having developed a platform that can be used to de-ice blades in the winter. Such de-icing is also used for de-icing aircraft with many airlines.
Drones have repeatedly proven to be a more accurate, efficient, safe, and inexpensive alternative to traditional thermographic inspections of solar fields and wind farms.
Renewable energy companies are looking for those who have been trained, or who are willing to be trained, in the use of commercial drones and thermographic testing.