5 Benefits of Using Drones for PV System Inspections

5 Benefits of Using Drones for PV System Inspections

Drones are revolutionizing how solar farms are inspected, operated, and maintained. They’re making solar site inspections faster, safer, and delivering more accurate reports on the overall DC health of a site. In this post, we will break down the 5 main ways drones deliver value when used for performing PV system inspections. Whether you’re an asset owner, performance manager, field technician, or a service provider, drones provide unmatched value when it comes to inspecting PV systems from the air.

1. Comprehensive Coverage

Applying drone technology to PV system inspections has allowed for more accuracy than previously possible with manual field tests, ie. I-V curve tracing. Performing manual inspections of solar farms is extremely timely, labor-intensive, and leaves room for error. The amount of time it takes to perform these tests can also lead to variation in the test results. By taking aerial footage of an entire solar asset in a short period of time (a couple hours), you eliminate inconsistencies and avoidable errors in your inspection data. O&M teams that have implemented drones in their workforce have reported reducing time on site by 90%.

 

2. Enhanced Visibility

During manual inspections, every individual module cannot be analyzed, therefore anomalies are frequently overlooked. Use of drones to perform aerial thermography inspects all issues within a solar site down to the cell level. By capturing detailed imagery/data of the entire PV system, teams are able to identify, classify, and localize each anomaly and understand the performance impact. Technicians are then able to quickly prioritize anomalies by the level of severity, visit each anomaly, and make appropriate repairs.

 

3. Site Safety

In order to manually check that a solar farm is operating at maximum capacity, technicians must periodically open combiners and inverters. Direct interaction with open circuitry is extremely dangerous and puts technicians at risk. Drones drastically reduce this safety risk by localizing defects and pinpointing faults. This eliminates technicians’ unnecessary exposure to electric shock and having to perform inspections from unsafe locations, ie. rooftops.

 

4. Scalability Across Solar Sites

The ability for a drone to access any site location has made it the go-to inspection service for commercial and industrial (C&I) projects. Since C&I sites are typically located in highly populated regions, drone technicians are widely available for hire. Drones allow small teams to also inspect large Utility-scale solar sites in a single day. Instead of sending a team of technicians to find a needle in a haystack, one technician can show up to a site and perform an IR and high-resolution imaging inspection within a few hours. Drones are enabling asset managers to increase the number of sites their teams can manage without adding more skilled technicians.

5. Improved Operational Excellence  

Drone technology maximizes productivity for solar professionals by conducting inspections 10x faster than manually possible. With PV systems encompassing hundreds of thousands of panels, performing aerial thermal and high-resolution inspections has become the most efficient way to detect anomalies (hot spots, soiling, shading, string failures). O&M and asset management in the solar industry are rapidly adopting drone technology in order to optimize their workflow, increase productivity, reduce labor costs, and improve safety.

 

In conclusion, as drone and camera technology continues to develop and local and federal regulations for drones evolve the sky’s the limit for drones in the solar industry.

Looking to incorporate drones into your PV system inspections? Reach out to us here. Want to learn about Raptor Solar? Read more about how our software turns your solar drone inspection data into comprehensive system analytics and actionable reports here.

Live Webinar: One-on-One with Gresco and Raptor Maps: UAS, Solar Software, and PV System Inspection Reports

Live Webinar: One-on-One with Gresco and Raptor Maps: UAS, Solar Software, and PV System Inspection Reports

 

Do you design, build, manage, and/or own PV plants? UAS are quickly becoming common tools used in every stage of a solar project.

From inspecting a site for planning, monitoring construction progress, and even replacing manual preventative maintenance inspections with thermal and high-resolution UAS inspections, drones are helping utility and energy teams lower operating costs, increase system performance, and standardize & compare assets across a portfolio.

Gresco will be hosting a live webinar with their software partners, Raptor Maps. Join Jamie Gose and John Nunes from the UAS team at Gresco Technology Solutions, along with Nikhil Vadhavkar, CEO and co-founder of Raptor Maps, for a discussion on using drones to inspect PV systems and how to convert that information into actionable reports for management and field technicians. There will also be a Q&A.

As drones continue to be adopted by utilities and alternative energy companies, drones and Raptor Maps enable better system performance and reduced operating costs.

What you’ll learn:

  • Why UAS are a valuable tool for utilities and alternative energy companies with solar assets
  • What the recommended drones models and payloads are for utilities and alternative energy companies
  • Opportunities to incorporate drones across the lifecycle of a solar project
  • How Raptor Maps enables teams to turn UAS data into actionable reports

The webinar will be Tuesday the 8th of May, 2018 at 1pm EDT and will be followed by a 30-minute Q&A.

*If you are unable to attend the live webinar, please sign up anyway and we’ll send you the recording.

Webinar Recap: RMUS and Raptor Maps Present the Entire Process of Inspecting a Solar Farm and Creating Reports

Webinar Recap: RMUS and Raptor Maps Present the Entire Process of Inspecting a Solar Farm and Creating Reports

Raptor Maps partnered with RMUS on a webinar to cover the specifics of using drones for the inspection of PV systems (solar farms) with both infrared and high-resolution cameras. The goal of the webinar was to break down how to set up a drone flight (equipment and flight app), how to collect the best data, and an overview of what types of deliverables are most valuable to companies involved in building, owning, and managing these sites.

The entire webinar can be viewed below for anyone who was unable to tune in live. The following is a summary of the central themes discussed in the webinar.

How to Fly and Inspect a Solar Farm with a Drone and Infrared Camera

To minimize the time you spend in the field and the amount of data you have to collect and transfer, it is critical to perform a few practice flights as soon as you purchase your hardware. Familiarizing yourself with how to set up the hardware and how to set up a mission (flights) doesn’t have to be done at a solar farm. We also strongly recommend practicing how to map out both a thermal imaging inspection and a high-resolution imaging inspection.

Ideally, PV inspections should be performed on sunny days with minimal wind and cloud coverage. Less than 25% cloud coverage is ideal. Also, flying in the morning or late afternoon can help avoid issues with glare from the panels, which impacts image quality.

In order to ensure there is no motion blur, you should not fly over 7 mph (3m/s). The flight should be parallel along the solar rows, with 80% overlap (frontlap) in the direction of flight and 20% overlap (sidelap) between passes. We have seen that pointing the camera perpendicular to the flight path (in the direction the solar panels are facing) can result in better data quality as well and quicker processing turnaround time.

Why You Should Also Do a High-Resolution Color Imaging Drone Inspection

Raptor Maps recommends performing two flights as part of the data collection. One primary inspection using a radiometric infrared (thermal) imaging camera, ie. DJI FLIR Zenmuse XT 640x512 30Hz 13mm Lens, and a second inspection using a high-resolution (RGB) color imaging camera, ie. DJI Zenmuse X3.

A thermal imaging camera will allow you to identify issues that cannot be seen with the naked eye and are impacting production of the site. Certain defects found in thermal imagery need to be double-checked against high-resolution images, such as shattering or soiling, to determine the root cause of the anomaly. High-resolution images also capture a higher-level of detail, enabling additional reporting on a PV system. This data can be used to identify potential warranty related issues like delamination and/or create an RGB map of a solar farm with no current satellite imagery available for use as a base-layer in an inspection report.

Why You Should be Delivering a PV System Inspection Report to Your Client and NOT Just a Thermal Map of the Solar Farm

A radiometric orthomosaic (thermal map) is a high-level representation of an area of land that has been captured with a thermal camera and the images have been stitched together. After dozens of meetings with solar companies we have learned that a thermal map is NOT a complete deliverable.

The high altitude solar inspections have to be performed at to produce thermal maps cause you to lose large amounts of image detail and false positives or stitching artifacts are often created. Thermal maps also require at least 4X the number of images to be captured for a map to be created vs an inspection that results in the creation of an image based report. This means a lot more time on site flying and everything involved in long flight time.

In contrast, a report created using the individual thermal and high-resolution imagery allows you deliver more detailed information to the client. Reports generated with Raptor Maps also require much less data to be captured, ie. less overlap, and less time flying a site so you can fly more sites in a day/week.

How Raptor Maps Has Made it Easy for Anyone to Turn Your Raw Solar Farm Inspection Data into a High-Quality PV System Inspection Report

Once you have finished flying both the infrared and high-resolution imaging missions, you most likely have a few thousand photos to analyze before you can create a valuable report. Raptor Maps believes your time is better spent flying more sites or performing other valuable tasks instead of reviewing the large volume of images you’ve captured and then building a report.

We have built software that automates the identification, classification, and localization of anomalies from the drone imagery. The software is able to process the inspection data using AI and machine learning and is able to analyze both thermal and high-resolution color imagery of solar farms from 100 kWp to 300+ MWp.

Raptor Maps software also automatically produces a PV system inspection report with the analytics generated during data review. These reports are suited for performance managers, asset owners, and field technicians. Every identified anomaly is classified by type and localized within the site and assigned coordinates, enabling technicians to quickly visit each anomaly in the field. The primary report also includes site information, details about the actual inspection, and a defect analysis. This is valuable for asset management, as it isolates areas with the most loss and identifies the root causes.

PV inspection reports produced by Raptor Maps are integrated into a clients workflow through an interactive portal which is accessible to third parties, so clients can share with their own clients how the asset is performing. Reports also allow you to track changes over time and compare sites across portfolios, enabling better decisions concerning solar farms over different regions. Raptor Maps software allows asset owners and O&M managers to spend less time reviewing data, allocate less capital towards labor, and grow their portfolios.

 

Do I Really Need Software to Analyze My Solar Farm Drone Data?

Do I Really Need Software to Analyze My Solar Farm Drone Data?

Yes.

Despite reducing the time to perform a field inspection by more than 90%, drones still create lots of information that has to be reviewed and converted into usable formats. If you’re new to using drones for PV system inspections, you may think that it’s easier and cheaper to manually review this information. However, the thousands of photos or hours of video you capture with your drone require large amounts of time to review. The fact is that artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are much more efficient than humans. They also cost less too.

“As soon as you put an infrared camera on a drone, what used to take three days takes two hours instead” – Jason Handley, Director of Smart Grid Technology and Operations, Duke Energy

Duke Energy and other companies involved in owning, operating, and/or managing solar farms are rapidly adopting drones with infrared cameras to replace manual field inspections that often take days to complete. Now, these companies are spending large amounts of time manually analyzing the drone inspection data.

It’s critical to realize that the drone is only half of the solution in order to maximize the ROI of your investment. Today, the technology exists to use the data captured with a drone in a much more automated way with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. This technology solves the bottleneck that quickly forms when you attempt to manually review drone data from a collection of commercial and industrial (C&I) sites, a larger utility-scale site, or an entire portfolio. Raptor Maps’ AI solar software automates the review of both thermal and high-resolution drone captured imagery, turning this data into actionable reports and delivering increased workforce efficiency. 

According to Jason Handley of Duke Energy, “As soon as you put an infrared camera on a drone, what used to take three days takes two hours instead,” (AutomationWorld). Drones allow companies to reduce the time to perform a field inspection by more than 90%, but the burden has shifted to manually reviewing this data and convert it into analytics and actionable reports. Recognizing the value of software in the drone space, Handley advocated, “if we can make this work with AI to see where things are failing, it’s going to be a lot better for us going forward.”

“Work smarter…not harder,” – Every PV field technician 

*A typical 4 MWdc drone inspection dataset

Raptor Maps solar analytics and reporting software solves the issues of internally processing drone data on multiple fronts. Using machine learning software to do this eliminates the need to have skilled technicians or other employees clicking through images for multiple days, trying to find and localize every anomaly. In an industry constantly strained with labor shortages, these employees can instead apply their talents towards more skilled task.

AI software has the ability to review hundreds of megawatts of aerial thermal and color imagery in a fraction the time a group of people are capable of. It is less expensive to pursue this option over paying an entire team to manage and execute data analyzation. In addition, computers and AI are not prone to the same errors as humans and increases reporting accuracy and consistency across portfolios of PV sites. While drone technology has been utilized by leading electric companies to improve speed and safety for solar farm inspection, its value is not fully maximized without a software application.

You can learn more about Raptor Maps AI solar software here or you can contact us for more information here.

Live Webinar: RMUS and Raptor Maps Present the Entire Process of Inspecting a Solar Farm and Creating Reports

Live Webinar: RMUS and Raptor Maps Present the Entire Process of Inspecting a Solar Farm and Creating Reports

From Turning Propellers to Turning Wrenches

Do you provide drone-based PV system (solar farm) inspection services? Are you trying to break into the solar industry and provide solar farm inspections for new clients? Are you interested in learning about how you can deliver useful solar farm management reports to your clients? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then this webinar is for you!

Join Jon McBride, VP of Technology at RMUS, and Nikhil Vadhavkar, CEO and co-founder of Raptor Maps, for a free webinar April 25th at 2:00pm EDT (UTC-4) as they walk through a how to perform a solar farm inspection, from flight planning and piloting the drone to the creation of final deliverables.

What you’ll learn:

  • How to fly and inspect a solar farm with a drone and infrared camera
  • Why you should also collect high-resolution color images and the quickest way to collect this second data set
  • Why you should be delivering a PV system inspection report to your client and not just a thermal map of the solar farm
  • How Raptor Maps has made it easy for anyone to use drones to manage solar assets

According to Greentech Media, the leading market research authority for the electricity industry, 2018 will be the first-ever-triple-digit year for the global solar market, with more than 100 GW (gigawatts) of solar coming online, source link. To put this in perspective, 100 GW is more than 400,000 acres of solar projects being completed by the end of 2018. All those GWs will need trained pilots to perform solar farm inspections!

*If you are unable to attend the live webinar, please sign up anyway and we’ll send you the recording.

Live Webinar: April 24th, 2018 at 2:00 PM EST
Followed by a 30-minute Live Q&A

Announcing the Winner of the Raptor Solar Contest

Announcing the Winner of the Raptor Solar Contest

Thank you to everyone who participated in Raptor Maps’ first drone inspection contest focused on solar farm inspections!

We held a drone inspection contest last month to promote Raptor Maps’ latest analytics product, Raptor Solar, and showcase some of the best drone pilots, service providers, and aerial thermographers on Earth. We had entries from all over the world, including inspections of PV systems ranging from small commercial rooftop PV systems to utility-scale solar power plants. Thank you to everyone who participated!

Congratulations to Yuji Kuwamizu at afterFIT, the winner of 10 megawatts (MWdc) of free Raptor Solar Artificial-Intelligence (AI) software analysis and PV system inspection reports and 1 free year of the Raptor App in our ‘Raptor Solar’ contest. His contest entry solar inspection data was reviewed by Raptor Maps’ automated software solution and the analytics were used to create a PV system inspection .PDF report, as well as online report, .KML, and Excel (see below).

Yuji and afterFIT were nice enough to give us permission to share the PV system inspection report. You can review the entire report HERE.

Our judges evaluated all entries based on data quality. The highest quality data was defined as the following:

  • Thermal images were radiometric (R-JPEG, thermal TIFF)
  • Images were geotagged and timestamped
  • Images were free from glare
  • Images were free from motion blur
  • Cell and module level defects could be seen (typically 5.5 cm/pixel or less ground sampling distance)
  • The solar installation was completely captured without missing any modules
  • In the event of a tie, the data collected at the fastest data collection speed (MWdc/min) wins

Congratulations Yuji!

About Afterfit Co., Ltd. Afterfit Engineering Co., Ltd. (afterFIT):

afterFIT is headquartered in Okayama City, Japan with several branch offices throughout Japan. The company provides development, construction, maintenance, and maintenance of large solar power plants throughout the Japanese solar market.