With the potential to reduce inspection times from weeks to hours, it’s no wonder drones are becoming an integral part of the solar asset manager’s toolkit.
Bringing drones in house, however, may not be the right investment approach for every asset owner. That’s why we’re seeing more third-party drone service providers begin offering inspection services to the renewables industry as an outsourced alternative to investing in drones, flight planning, pilots, GIS data specialists or data analysis infrastructure.
Washington, D.C.-based Measure recently launched its suite of drone inspection solutions for solar plant maintenance.
Harjeet Johal, vice president of energy infrastructure at Measure, told Renewable Energy World that drone solutions offer five distinct value propositions for solar owners when those services are assimilated into the asset management workflow.
Johal says that asset managers typically work in the back office to monitor control system data; make sure that maintenance services are being scheduled regularly; and ensure that data or information that is coming out of the maintenance services is properly assessed and analyzed so that any repair work that is done is based on sound economic decisions.
By capturing solar site data with drones and integrating resulting data into the work system on a secure platform — either hosted by Measure or the solar asset owner — the asset manager has a “single snapshot” with which to assess where faults and abnormalities are throughout the site, Johal said.
Drones significantly reduce the time it takes to inspect solar assets.
The legacy approach to inspecting a solar farm may take many weeks, while the inspection of a 20-MW solar farm, for example, would only take a few hours with a drone, Johal said.
Efficiencies also are realized by reducing the time it takes to analyze information collected during an inspection.
The manager no longer has to comb through 100 pages of a PDF report to make the same decisions that can be made now with “a few clicks,” he said.
Increased safety is a benefit of drone inspections to not only solar farm owners and operators, but also to the utility and power industry as a whole.
“The less time spent in the field implies less chance of incidents happening,” Johal said. “Safety-first culture is what utility and power companies thrive on. Improving safety is a No. 1 priority, and if you're reducing time in the field from weeks to a day, that's critical.”
He added that Measure has seen drone inspections provide an improvement in efficiency of more than 95 percent, and that directly translates into safety benefits.
For larger solar farms — 20 MW+ — Johal said the automation of inspections can improve plant productivity.
“It takes a long time for manual plant inspections,” he said. “We've seen that sometimes it can take many months, or many years, to complete one full inspection.”
He said that when a fault or abnormality isn’t captured in the first round of inspection, it may be carried over during the normal operations of the solar farm. That scenario implies that there is a potential lost opportunity in capturing the full productivity of the facility, and that affects the revenues and the bottom line of the solar farm owners.
“Since drones can capture data in a single visit, typically we won't leave any opportunity of missed revenues on the table,” he said.
During an inspection, Measure’s drones collect both thermal and visual imagery. Johal said that those images allow the asset manager to not only pinpoint the big failures — string or module failures — but also identify if a single cell in a module is affected.
“That tells asset managers what the percent degradation is and helps them make important economic decisions,” he said. “Since we're able to go down to the cell level in one single shot, it gives a more accurate representation of the overall health of the farm.”
Lead image credit: Measure