The Innovation Lab: With Help from Drones
By Jeremy Turner, President of RPX
Solar installations require significant maintenance once they are completed. Grass needs to be mowed, panels need to be cleaned, repairs need to be made, and inspections need to be performed. We should know, we provide operations and maintenance (O&M) for many of the sites we’ve built, as well as for third parties.
RPX, our research and development division, is focused on innovative technologies to enhance the renewable energy industry, such as making O&M teams more efficient and productive. Drones are an example of a new technology that can be critical to any O&M operation. Drones are used to conduct site inspections, surveys, and safety audits. Their ability to fly above a site and take detailed photos with ease make them a necessary tool for any O&M team.
Drone technology, which provides photography, topography and videography, can help make very accurate photos and graphs for use before an installation is built, during the construction process, and for the O&M team after the installation is complete. Once the solar farm is in the maintenance phase, the drone photos can help show if and where there are repairs that need to be made or other items for concern.
Drones also provide thermal imaging, which can show where improvements may be needed to increase efficiency or where there may be electrical issues. This can reduce the number of potentially hazardous inspections of items like combiner boxes. And not only can drones provide a helpful birds eye view, they are becoming increasingly easy to use.
Drones are for lots of things beyond just taking photographs, such as improving safety, productivity, and accuracy. Less time spent manually inspecting the solar farms from ground level means fewer safety incidents, less time spent by staff reviewing each panel one by one increases efficiency, and—with a view from the sky—the ability to see things that may be missed from ground level means less future repairs or mishaps.
What will the future bring for drones? Integration, efficiency, and predictive maintenance. By utilizing new software and algorithms, we will be able to generate efficient, premade flight paths to look for accidents before they happen and make inspections without ever setting foot on the site. Plus, as drone technology advances, it will result in enhanced capabilities and increased flight times by integrating artificial intelligence engines with post processing algorithms. This will allow the use of drone data for preventative maintenance and safety evaluations. For instance, photographing equipment on the site in real time and running those images against existing original site photos could identify issues that may be of concern to prevent safety and maintenance issues before they happen. This will also increase construction efficiency, before O&M steps in, with better tracking and real-time quality inspection.
As drone technology advances, the benefits will continue to grow, and return on investment will rise for owners and investors. But for today, teams like ours will stay on site, and take advantage of all drones currently have to offer, to ensure solar sites remain online and the crew stays safe.