Drone-in-a-Box, The Future of Solar Operations and Maintenance

Drone-in-a-Box, The Future of Solar Operations and Maintenance

Image provided by Skydio, Inc.


Drone-in-a-Box tech is likely to be standard on large-scale utility (100MW+) solar facilities in the next 1-2 years

Operations and maintenance of utility-scale solar farms is a balancing act of safely maximizing system performance while reducing OPEX (Operating Expenses). Safety is non-negotiable, so the focus is finding a balance between system performance and OPEX. Historically, choosing one can negatively impact the other. It is rare that an innovation comes along that checks all boxes (pun intended), but we are on the verge of exactly that with Drone-in-a-Box.

What is Drone-in-a-Box, exactly, and why is it important to solar operations?

The Drone-in-a-Box (DIAB) is the latest evolution of autonomous unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology utilizing drones that can be remotely deployed via self-contained “boxes.” These boxes are weather-resistant enclosures that contain the necessary equipment to communicate with the UAV as well as recharge. Raptor Maps is partnering with Skydio to enable solar-specific use cases with Skydio’s Dock. This enables solar asset owners/operators to automate routine & ad-hoc inspections using drone-in-a-box while delivering seamless integrations to Raptor Maps.

Traditionally, a pilot with a ground-based controller is required to be present to operate the UAV. DIAB systems can be remotely operated or deployed autonomously and carry out on demand, or pre-mapped missions. Once the missions are completed, the DIAB returns to its box to be protected from the elements as well as recharge and/or upload information.

This is important to utility-scale (in this case 100MW+) systems because the technology can safely maximize system performance while reducing OPEX in many areas. The primary use of drones equipped with IR cameras in utility solar is to scan for thermal anomalies annually. Armed with Raptor Solar reporting and software, operators can then remedy high-priority findings. Many of the highest priority findings impact system performance, but if sites are only inspected annually, months may pass before losses are identified. The integration of a DIAB will allow owners and operators to roll out more frequent inspections and save valuable power production.

Looking at a few scenarios outlined in Figure 1, we are able to break down and visualize the cost differences between traditional data capture (operator + drone) and DIAB. For all examples, we assume a 100MW system and adjust the scan frequency with traditional methods vs DIAB. Most notably, the red line shows purchasing a new DIAB every 10 years and performing annual maintenance on the device is aligned with today’s cost of a single annual scan. This means that DIAB will unlock the full suite of services and labor-saving activities listed below for the same investment most facilities are modeled with today. It is clear that DIAB has the potential to impart significant savings over the life of a solar asset.

Key Benefits of Drone-in-a-Box to Utility-Scale Solar

The true power of DIAB to operators and asset owners has yet to be made clear. However, here are some of the top ways it can be utilized.

Quarterly IR Inspections

Traditionally, aerial IR inspections are performed annually or bi-annually due to OPEX budget constraints as outlined in Figure 1. DIAB unlocks the ability to increase inspection frequency to quarterly for nearly the same cost as a single annual scan. This allows asset owners and operators to fully understand the DC health of the system throughout the year and plan mitigation while increasing system performance. The industry has also seen an increase in extreme weather which can be damaging to solar assets. Increased scan frequency and the ability to have scans on-demand will allow for extreme weather damage to be assessed immediately following an event.

Substation and Overhead Line Inspections

Since substation IR inspections are currently only performed annually, it is possible for critical components to overheat and fail over time. Increasing the inspection frequency (to weekly, monthly, or quarterly) of these key components and terminations will allow operators to identify areas of concern much earlier. Many times a loose bolt or stressed termination can cause catastrophic failure if left uncorrected. Identifying these problem spots sooner with DIAB can potentially save hundreds of thousands in equipment and performance losses.

Overhead lines within the array are becoming more common as systems get larger and sprawl on more dispersed parcels. Inspecting these lines currently requires the dispatch of specialized technicians and equipment. Frayed or overheating connections on overhead lines can be very costly to repair and can potentially force whole blocks of arrays offline. Utilizing DIAB will reduce this expense and increase inspection frequency.

Reactive Inspections

When a block, inverter, or combiner is suspected of underperformance (or offline), DIAB can quickly be deployed to gather IR and RGB images that are critical for Control Room engineers to understand the outage. This potentially prevents a truck roll and allows the full diagnosis remotely. At present, remote operators and field technicians need to coordinate reactive inspections and the cost of these inspections can be higher than annual inspections due to mobilization.

Monitor Vegetation, Civil, and Fences

Vegetation maintenance on utility-scale solar facilities is a significant part of the annual project budget and in some cases can be more than half. Timing your vegetation activities (spraying and mowing) is a key component to getting the most out of your spending. Implementing a weekly vegetation inspection by DIAB will allow you to time these more appropriately. Monitoring overgrown vegetation will also prevent module shading and ensure better system performance.

Roads, fences, and inverter pads are part of routine operator maintenance. Most of these inspections do not lead to improved system performance and can take time away from other activities that can. With DIAB you will be able to inspect roads and inverter pads for erosion and examine fences for damage from the control center. This frees up valuable time for your site team to make high-priority repairs.

Security and Site Access

Site security on facilities as large as thousands of acres can create technology, manpower, and cost constraints. In many cases, this means large sections of the array will have no security oversight and rely on perimeter inspections. With a DIAB, operators will be able to schedule regular perimeter inspections as well as respond in real time to security concerns.

Another benefit will be monitoring gate access and having visual confirmation that the permitted visitors are the only ones accessing the site. On NERC (North American Electrical Reliability Corporation) facilities, this access logging is a requirement of CIP (Critical Infrastructure Protection), and the DIAB images can act as redundancy to sign-in sheets.

Weekly Tracker Verification

Utility-scale tracker systems are equipped with remote system monitoring and an array of TCUs (Tracker Controller Units) that allow control centers and plant managers to identify misalignment and offline tracker tables. As with any system, this can be flawed, and device connectivity can make it difficult to discern if the equipment is offline vs not communicating. A weekly high-altitude overview flight with a DIAB will allow for monitoring redundancy and verification of tracker functionality. Identifying and correcting misaligned or offline trackers will lead to better system performance.

How to Prepare for the Emergence of Drone-in-a-Box

Implementing routine aerial IR inspections today is a major step to normalizing these activities on your site. This coupled with a robust digital twin in our Raptor Solar application will lay the mapping groundwork for rolling out DIAB in the near future. Raptor Maps is working with hardware integrators to stay at the forefront of the DIAB roll-out as well as uncovering ways our application can supercharge this technology.


Preparing for Extreme Weather Events on Solar Farms

Preparing for Extreme Weather Events on Solar Farms

raptor maps hurricane ian solar site


Steps for building technical resilience for solar plants given the increasing frequency of extreme weather


Hurricane Ian’s trajectory is expected to affect roughly 800 solar farms with 14GW of peak power capacity, underlining that owners and operators of utility-scale solar installations have an increasing need to take meaningful steps to mitigate risks and preserve energy output.

A Raptor Maps analysis of Hurricane Ian’s probable path is overlaid unto the locations of large solar farms in the graphic above, illustrating the potential for damage.*

While some solar operators may believe that the only way to prepare for extreme weather is to have a good insurance policy, there are numerous ways to mitigate risk and facilitate the thoughtful operations of solar plants.

This guide outlines some of the most productive ways to prep for extreme weather and build technical resilience for your facility—thus helping to ensure power output and speed the inevitable warranty claims process.


Why Build Technical Resilience?

What is technical resilience, exactly, and why is it important to focus on now?

Building technical resilience is the process of implementing preventative and preparative techniques to reduce the likelihood of experiencing severe damage due to an extreme weather event. It’s important because, aside from insurance, this is the #1 way to protect solar assets.

The frequency of extreme weather events has been on the rise, and experts predict the trend will continue. This was neatly quantified by Insurance Business Magazine: “In the second quarter of 2022, there were multiple catastrophic hail events that all caused losses in excess of $50 million in the solar industry.”

Read on for the exact steps to take to prepare for the increasing risk of extreme weather.


Steps to Take to Prepare for Extreme Weather


1. Assess the Particular Risks to Your Solar Farm

The first step in building technical resilience is to identify the risks present at your facility. Is your asset located in a high risk region for one of the following: damaging hail (>2”), wildfire, tornado, or hurricane/flood? Insurance providers may be able to provide data around the likelihood of extreme weather occurring on or around your facility. Understanding the risk will allow you to make engineering decisions and procure spare parts in preparation for extreme weather. For all potential threats, it is highly recommended that you begin preparing during the construction phase.

Although extreme weather can damage many parts of the array, the most common claims involve modules, and that is what is focused on here. Most module warranty claims require the following to file a claim: (a) party making claim; (b) detailed description; (c) evidence, including photographs and data; (d) relevant serial numbers; (e) Warranty Start Date; (f) Module type; and (g) physical address. There is a lot of overlap with insurance claims, and they will require the same equipment records.


2. Build a Digital Twin of Your Solar Site

Building a digital twin is the first step in planning for asset operations and a potential future claim. Raptor Maps provides digital twins that are a comprehensive data model based on your as-built drawings and that act as a data warehouse for the entire history of your equipment.


3. Map the Serial Numbers of All Panels

Mapping serial numbers is the the next step in planning for a potential claim. When the module serial numbers are loaded into Raptor Maps digital twin, you begin building an equipment record. Loading in panel serial numbers and starting your digital twin will allow you to take an important step in simplifying and expediting any future claims.


4. Run Aerial Thermography Commissioning Scans

Commissioning scans are the next step in building your equipment record. Scanning your panels prior to COD will give you a snapshot of the panel health prior to operations begin. This is a key piece of data that the insurance providers and warranty holders look for when reviewing a claim, they want to know whether or not the equipment was healthy prior to the weather event.


5. Perform Annual or Semi-Annual Thermography Scans

Regular thermography scans will keep your equipment record for the life of the asset. Every time a scan is performed, you are continuing to build the equipment record and track it’s health over time. This historical record will be reviewed during the claim process and the more data you have, the better chance of claim approval.


6. Perform a Scan Following Extreme Weather

In the unfortunate event that a site gets hit by hail or other extreme weather causing damage to the modules, getting an aerial IR scan performed as quickly as possible is key to restoring the system to full production. This will give you, and your insurance providers, a conclusive report on the overall damage to the system and help move the claim forward.


7. Use a Software Solution for Warranty and Insurance Claims

Raptor Solar’s warranty claims feature is a software solution that aggregates all of the above in a quick and simplified application, allowing you to file claims with the click of a button. Whether it’s insurance providers or warranty holders, Raptor Maps allows O&M to streamline the claims process.

These steps are key to reducing downtime and lost production. Not all insurance policies will allow you to claim all of your lost production, therefore restoring your asset to 100% production as fast as possible is the goal of our Raptor Maps Claims feature.


Plan Ahead for Extreme Weather

The risk of extreme weather to solar assets is on the rise, but you can act early to prevent significant damage. Following the guidance outlined above, and working with insurers, you can rest assured that your valuable investments are protected.

* Raptor Maps analyzed NOAA’s 18th forecast for Hurricane Ian and combined it with the EIA’s database of solar farms in the area over 1MW.