Driving Down Costs of Solar Panel Farms with Drone Inspections

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Driving Down Costs of Solar Panel Farms with Drone Inspections

Countries around the world have been increasing their investments into renewable energy sources, and solar power remains the most popular venture of its kind.
Solar-inspections
During 2018, capacity investment into renewable energy reached $272.9 billion; triple the investment into fossil fuels. This escalating interest into renewable energy is becoming increasingly important as we address the problem of climate change, and look to create a more sustainable future.

The cost of installing and implementing solar panels is reducing as time goes on and the technology advances; however there are additional technological advances outside the industry that can reduce these costs further. One such innovation stems from the applications that can be offered through drones; during the site surveys, initial installations and the required maintenance checks post-install, drones are removing costly man hours and identifying functional issues that the human eye cannot detect.

Noor Abu Dhabi Solar Farm
Drone inspections are yet more practical in UAE-based solar farms, as solar panels take up vast areas of desert and the climate can make inspections both difficult and dangerous for humans to undertake. Both Abu Dhabi and Dubai claim to have the largest solar parks in the world. Noor Abu Dhabi’s solar plant is estimated to remove the Emirate’s carbon dioxide emissions by 1 million metric tonnes, and to provide energy for 90,000 people, however, in order for these figures to remain so high, inspections and maintenance will be regular and routine throughout its lifetime.

Inspecting the Noor solar farm on foot would take a great deal of time, labour, and potential for human error across its 8km2 landscape. A drone, however, is in its element in these situations. Within this article, we will explore what makes drone inspections so cost-friendly - particularly during the typically expensive maintenance procedures.

Why Solar Farms Innovate with Drone Inspections

Timely inspection is crucial as there are huge risks associated with failing to do so. Solar cell failure can lead to catastrophic events such as inverter explosions, jeopardising the business and causing potential harm to human lives. Seen early on, these defects can be corrected with speedy intervention and any associated risk or drop in energy production can be corrected.
 
The more time goes by, the more important these inspections become as solar panels degrade approximately 0.5% to 3% each year. Certain unavoidable elements will cause solar cells to degrade; these include UV exposure, thermal cycling, damp heat, and humidity freeze. Any degradation of solar cells will reduce performance, so they need to be monitored to ensure energy is not being lost through solar cell inefficiency.

Not all barriers to efficient solar cell functioning can be seen by the human eye, and further technology is relied upon for highly effective solar plants – be it through handheld devices or fast, accurate drones. Thermographic inspections on solar farms provide a multitude of benefits which make them a popular choice for cutting down costs and improving functionality within the industry:
  1. Rapid inspection of roof top arrays and across large surface areas.
  2. Inspections of large areas are available within a matter of hours rather than days.
  3. Hot spots and anomalies are made clearly visible on high-resolution thermal imaging cameras, which cannot be seen with the naked eye.
  4. Potential problem areas can be detected and repaired.
  5. Geo tagging enables the easy location of faulty modules in large areas, and can relate the thermal images to the equipment in reports.
The drones, however, are not only useful for running solar farms; they also reduce construction costs. Using drones for solar farm site surveys and progress inspections both improves safety and reduces rework; keeping projects efficient, in-budget and on-time.

Automatic Drone Inspections Reduce Costs

Drone inspection can be done automatically, using a pre-planned drone flight path. With the click of a button, the drone will automatically follow the flight path and land safely once the mission is complete. Hot spots are automatically detected during this process through thermal sensors; once the sensor detects temperature above the temperature preset, a notification is sent to the ground station in real-time.


Hotpots detected through Drone Inspection
Generally speaking, inspectors traditionally walk the kilometres of solar parks doing their manual inspections, which takes a great deal of time and money, regardless of whether anything needs fixing. Using automated drone inspections greatly reduces the cost of routine maintenance inspections as only what actively needs addressing will be fixed by a human labour force.
Utilising these unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) typically reduce the cost of inspections by approximately 30-50% while greatly improving inspection speed. The safety of personnel is improved as there is no need for them to ascend to heights to inspect rooftop panels; nor do they have to work in challenging temperatures.

With man hours vastly reduced, automatic routine surveillance can be performed in a fraction of the time. By removing so much costly labour, drones enable the maintenance -- and therefore overall cost -- of solar panel energy to decrease. The lowered cost makes them more available to companies and individuals, and drives the demand up.

How are Drone Inspections Carried Out on Solar Panels?

Solar panel drone inspection is performed by one operator piloting an advanced drone across a solar farm, with a selection of payloads. These payloads often include 4K cameras, capable of high-resolution video and image stills, and additional payloads such as infra-red thermal imaging sensors to ensure consistent and safe temperature levels across all solar panels.

Solar Panel Inspection using Drones
Drones are frequently used not only for maintaining solar health, but also for solar panel installations. The drone technology can record site progress on request, with heightened accuracy in far less time than it would take for the Site Manager to assess and report back about the same area. With a drone on site, inspections can be carried out remotely and compared against previous inspections to view real-time progress from any location.

Defects and faults can be detected with this advanced technology, and can send detailed reports on the discovered issues and their precise geolocation. Teams can then enter the site to fix the issue, knowing exactly what is wrong, what parts and tools they need, and exactly where the issue is. In this respect, drone solar inspections minimise human intervention until a potential problem begins to show signs. This allows solar farm operators to act fast and resolve issues before they escalate.

In Conclusion

Inefficiency and inaccuracy within inspections can be costly in any industry; the intervention of drone technology, however, can address this before it occurs. Other costly events can also be avoided as a single malfunctioning cell can compromise the entire system. Effective maintenance of the entire system, cell by cell, is required to obtain the best possible performance and the most favourable return on investment.

By using drones in solar panel construction and subsequent inspections, a great deal of time and money is saved. Less and safer man hours, quicker and more thorough reports lead the way to more efficient and cost-effective solar farm projects which run at optimum levels. This, in turn, drives down the cost of solar panels which increases their accessibility and therefore demand.
There is no need to purchase drones for your company as companies such as FEDS provide drones as a service, wherein all drone equipment and payloads such as 4K cameras and thermal imaging sensors, are provided and operated for you, whenever you require.
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