Drones Becoming Useful as Solar Scouts


Who knew that drones would someday help improve the inexorable drive toward solar? For both large-scale site analysis and rooftop panel placements, drones are making a difference in solar installations across the world. Their flyovers are becoming invaluable in determining the best geographic location of solar farms and in optimizing the location of solar panels on residential rooftops.

Drones Scout Rooftops for Best Solar Panel Placement

 While the technology of solar panels may be dropping, installation and scouting costs stubbornly resist any real declines. A key contributor to these soft costs remains the surveying that’s required to determine the best place to install solar panels.

Scouting a rooftop for optimal solar panel placement calls for workers to physically climb onto a roof. This adds not only man-hours of costly labor, but also includes insurance costs and losses due to accidental equipment dropped and roof damage (particularly half-barrel tile roofs). Drones solve these problems by keeping workers off ladders and roofs. Drones weigh a fraction of any worker, they’re easy to operate, and they acquire the data needed in far less time than a worker. Most drones today have enough lift to carry Suneye devices or fisheye cameras to point towards the sky. Suneye-like software yields similar results at a fraction of the cost of hiring rooftop workers. Only a drone operator is needed. FAA’s new rules for commercial drones means these devices are easily deployed to scout out the optimal location for rooftop solar panels while reducing soft costs for these installations.

Some companies note that their drone-centric measurement systems with 3-D modeling may cut in half the time it takes to measure a residential rooftop for a solar installation. For commercial installations, drones can cut this time from days to minutes.

 Drones Help Scout Large-Scale Solar Sites

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) is exploring how drones can help the large-scale solar industry. It’s no secret that large-scale systems face unique siting challenges. Inefficiencies and problems in siting can persist in both the construction and management phases of a project, leading to costly delays that can reduce a system’s value. The solution many have come to embrace is today’s increasingly sophisticated drone.

Hovering high in the sky, drones can efficiently and cost effectively scout potential locations, assessing topography and other conditions that impact a solar farm’s location.  The imagery obtained can be used by software like SunPower to create 3-D system site layouts that boost energy production and provide the most “bang for the buck.” While solar farms are being built, drones can track the daily progress of construction and reduce the need for on-site management. Today, solar farms constantly face weighing the risk of a construction error or mishap against the cost of constant monitoring.

Drones solve this problem by reducing the cost of these overseeing activities. Low-flying drones can quickly assess the many panels in a typical solar farm. In addition to easy-to-spot problems like dirt and leaves, drones can spot micro-cracks, snail trails, potential-induced degradation, and ribbon solder bond failures. Drones can also perform thermal imaging to determine where excess heat may be impacting a panel’s performance, and they can do these tasks far less expensively and in far greater detail than manned aircraft flyovers. Drones can even check combiner boxes, junction boxes, inverters, and other electrical equipment for heat, which can portend equipment failure.

Whether we like it or not, drones are coming in many forms and capabilities. Weighting their ability to snoop are the many ways these hovering devices can lower the costs of solar installations—both large scale and residential rooftop.

Posted on Wednesday, November 16th, 2016