Drones: The Future of Solar Data Farms

Drones have revolutionized various fields of specialization, from surveillance and mapping to espionage and entertainment.

The wide range of capabilities that drones can achieve has inspired other fields and industries to take notice of the emerging technology. In fact, some companies are now using unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAVs) – the technical name for drones – in specific business roles.

Companies in the solar industry are looking into the potential of UAVs to improve their operation, particularly in the aspect of maintenance. According to a news article, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) recently released its report “based on interviews with PV asset owners, operations and maintenance service providers, and providers of UAS.”

The industry is assessing the potential of drones to cut costs on maintenance and management of solar farms. The existing and most popular method of checking the status of solar farms is by hiring truck rolls, which involve assigning technicians to check the actual location of the solar PV panels. In contrast, drones may take the place of these truck rolls by hovering over the solar panel sites and taking live data without the need for personnel or heavy equipment to go to the sites.

The EPRI report revealed that a typical vendor of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) can charge a minimum of $25,000 per year. This already covers the entire expanse of the solar panel site. In the current method, several truck rolls must be deployed to the sites at regular frequencies within a given year. Although each truck roll costs roughly $300-$600, that amount could escalate depending on the vastness of the site and the frequency of inspection. This variable cost is the reason why solar companies are seriously considering UAVs.

Drones can capture much more data than conventional truck rolls. The flying contraptions can detect “errors such as micro-cracks, snail trails, potential-induced degradation, and ribbon solder bond failures, among others.” They can also project thermal imaging of PV cells, boxes, inverters, and other parts of the electrical system.

However, the limitations set by federal and local laws restrict the schedule, location, and flight height of these technological marvels. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has jurisdiction over UAVs, and the agency grants exemptions depending on the case. Still, the solar industry is confident that the federal government will be able to recognize the value of drones in the near future.

[Photo courtesy of Kevin Baird on Flickr]