Inspecting Solar Panels with Drones
Updated: Sep 1
As technology advances, the desire to provide cleaner, more efficient energy has gained traction and brought about a huge increase in the number of solar panel fields, especially here in the Sunshine State of Florida. While solar options are very popular, there is still the need to maintain the structures to ensure they produce the maximum amount of energy.
Technicians are staffed that their sole purpose is to continually inspect these sites, when
using traditional methods this is a very slow process. Studies have shown that the average manual inspection time exceeds the time required to inspect the same area by roughly 97%.
Once taken into consideration, the manhours required to inspect an entire solar field 30MW in size (solar fields are measured in the amount of energy produced as opposed to a traditional measurement such as acreage), to manually inspect an area this size would take nearly 300 hours to complete. To reduce the manhours and cut costs, many solar providers utilize a sampling technique for their inspections – measuring a smaller sample, and then using that data to ascertain the overall health of the site. This can turn into a costly mistake, as damage to solar panels can be caused by a multitude of factors, many of which are entirely random upon their selection. That same 30MW solar field can be completely inspected by a drone in less than 10 hours of flight time. Say your technician that is performing the inspection makes $30/hour, for the entire site to be manually inspected the labor cost alone would be around $9,000, not to mention take over seven weeks to perform. A site that size would be half of that cost for a drone inspection that can be performed in a mere day (depending upon the deliverable).
Thermal inspection of solar fields should be paired with standard RGB imagery. This technology is used to determine if there is merely something preventing the solar cells from receiving sunlight (such as debris from a passing storm or an overly dirty panel) as opposed to physical damage to the components. Damage, as well as obstructions, cause thermal hotspots that are detectible with the thermal camera. In some instances, the difference in temperature between a normally operating cell and that of a defective one can exceed 50°C. Late morning to early afternoon is the optimal timeframe to conduct the inspection, with care taken to ensure the position of the drone does not align with glare from the sun on the panel, causing a washout effect. Drone solar inspections are conducted during normal operations without the need to shut down a site. This method can detect abnormalities that are associated with damage, improper connections, faulty bypass diodes, as well as physical obstructions, all can be easily discovered and documented for follow on repairs.
Drones are very versatile tools that can be utilized in many applications. From spot-checks to post-storm site assessments and even aerial imagery for marketing purposes, drones, and the technology they deliver can change how we conduct business. By removing much of the risk and hazards associated with manual inspections, drones provide a safer, more cost-effective solution to many of our everyday needs.