Over the past few years, the use of drones in solar operations has moved from a novelty to a mainstream technique. Initially seen as a gimmick with questionable value, drones are now fulfilling key roles across the entire solar plant life cycle. In the early planning stages, the use of drones in solar operations, for topographical surveying provides a faster, lower cost, and more useful output than that of traditional surveying techniques. Using either Lidar or photogrammetry, the drone can survey large areas quickly and accurately to assess the viability of potential installation sites. Drone topography accuracy is high, and the resulting shading model increases confidence in the yield calculation, thus resulting in more informed decision-making.
During the construction phase, drones are used for construction monitoring and management, which, for larger assets, is a valuable addition to security and stock management as well as project status reporting. However, it is during the commissioning phase that the drone can add the most value – using photogrammetry, it is possible to produce a highly accurate 3D model of a solar asset. This not only generates detailed ‘as-built CAD drawings based on real-world data but can also be used to assess the asset’s external, internal and self-shading profile to validate the reference yield calculation; a valuable addition to technical due diligence and vital when considering the reference yield’s onward impact on the PR figure and its influence over commercial decision making.
The use of drones in solar operations for thermal imaging has quickly become an industry standard. Drones are transforming how technicians validate an asset’s electrical integrity, in an industry previously reliant on manual string measurements and random ground-based thermography. Aerial thermography provides a complete picture of the asset down to a cellular level. This low-cost and highly accurate technique helps prevent early yield and revenue loss by identifying quality, construction, and commissioning issues in their early stages. Thermal imaging conducted at PAC provides an early health baseline for all modules. In addition to a comprehensive plan for the EPC to resolve any identified issues ahead of IAC or FAC, when a second thermographic inspection should be conducted.
Advances in software allow for the integration of all types of aerial data with other inspection, testing, and monitoring data to create a digital twin of the solar plant. This provides the industry with a robust platform to monitor plant health, chart degradation, and manage issues. Early identification of issues and degradation leads to a faster response time, more efficient use of resources, and, ultimately, a more productive and financially viable asset. Development in drone technology, sensors, AI, and computer vision will continue to increase the value they bring to the solar sector, playing an important step in the journey to net-zero.