The Role of Drones In the Renewable Energy Sector
Sat, April 10, 2021

The Role of Drones In the Renewable Energy Sector

Drones are used to make inspections easier and cheaper, as they replace traditional inspecting methods that involve humans. / Photo by: manaemedia via 123rf

 

Renewable energy is the fastest-growing energy source in the United States alone, according to Brittany Kuhn of Inside Unmanned Systems, an actionable business intelligence provider. Global demand for this source helps transform the way companies conduct facility inspections, and drones play a significant role in that process. Vice president of energy infrastructure at Measure Harjeet Johal noted that the drone industry is still new. 

In fact, drones only became a “mainstream technology in the U.S. renewable energy in the last few years, but industries have picked up the technology quite aggressively,” he added.” Now, drones offer renewable energy firms with “groundbreaking autonomous solutions. ” 

Drones Are A Game-Changer In the Renewable Energy Sector

Drones are used to make inspections easier and cheaper, as they replace traditional inspecting methods that involve humans. Traditionally, humans are sent to dangle from wind turbines, deploy diving teams in the water, or traverse spacious solar farms on foot. 

It also makes inspections a lot swifter. It takes weeks for manned teams to accomplish this task, but with drones, inspections can be done within days or even minutes, thereby bolstering energy performance and reliability. 

Moreover, drones will help improve the quality of information gathered from inspections. Combined with machine learning and advanced automation, drones can provide companies with greater insights and visibility on maintenance and repair needs. 

How Drones Are Applied In Various Energy Sources 

1. Solar Energy 

Solar power has experienced an average annual growth rate of 50% in the last 10 years. The more consumers rely on solar power, the more solar power companies need to expand their utility-scale farms, rendering on-foot inspections impractical. This prompts solar companies to rely on drones. For example, Measure’s mission is to enable companies to realize the benefits of drones in solar and wind. 

The Washington-based firm is helping clients outsource drone programs or build them in-house. The company provides resources on pilot training, data analysis, program software, advisory services, etc. to keep energy operating performance at peak condition. Measure offers a wide array of drones such as DJI’s Mavic Pros, Inspire 2s, and M210s, including SenseFly eBees and Zenmuse. 

The drones will follow a predefined flight along a grid pattern, allowing the machines to take photos of a solar farm and capture thermal images and data. Measure’s software program then uploads the photos into a cloud platform. The images gathered from the drones will be used to produce a “digital twin of the solar farm.” Each of the panels is given a GPS coordinate, which will undergo automated analysis to determine variations in temperature, tagging potential defects. 

Then, the engineers will analyze the tagged images for false positives or negatives, categorizing them according to risk and severity. Johal explained, “The value is in making the inspections process more repeatable and scalable so that it’s more autonomous over time.”

 

Solar power has experienced an average annual growth rate of 50% in the last 10 years. / Photo by: Pixabay via Pexels

 

2. Wind Energy

Shutting down larger turbines has increasingly consequential implications on cost and energy. Further, Manned crews need to have a turbine shut down before conducting inspections. They also have to hoist themselves to via ropes to examine the blades. This is dangerous since they are inspecting the blades at great heights. 

With drones, the blades can be inspected while still operational. Measure offers multirotor air frames to wind energy companies. Equipped with cameras, the drones can take 300 high-resolution images to detect signs of structural stress such as fissures and cracks. 

Thousands of images need to be processed and analyzed since wind farms have dozens or hundreds of turbines. Like the former, the images will be uploaded into a cloud platform, analyzing and classifying each one after inspection. Johal noted that drones can “autonomously navigate around a blade and inspect a turbine” in 15 to 30 minutes, cutting turbine downtime and man hours by 75%. 

3. Hydropower

Many hydroelectric powerplants in the United States are in need of repair. Hence, companies are resorting to remotely operated vehicles (ROV) or underwater drones. Deep Trekker, an Ontario-based developer of underwater ROVs and submersible robots, offers autonomous robotic solutions for various underwater structural inspections. This replaces the need for hydropower plants to deploy a team of divers, which can be costly and dangerous. 

Industry specialist and business development lead at Deep Trekker Cody Warner stated that any structure exposed to water is one of a power plant’s most vulnerable places. With its offerings of DTG3 and Revolution ROVs, the machines can check blockages in an intake system and inspect the facility’s structural integrity. 

What makes ROVs unique is their ability to “see” through muddy water. Interestingly, clients can install probes, transponders, thickness probes, and acoustics to tailor their ROVs to the type of inspection they want to conduct. Warner said, “We’ve simplified the inspection process for underwater or in pipe.” 

Are There Any Disadvantages of Using Drones? 

VP of marketing at Measure Carmen Smith explained that per Federal regulations, drones cannot be flown beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), as reported by Terri Williams of Choose Energy, a marketplace committed to educating individuals about energy deregulation. Helicopters may be a great alternative for cursory inspections. However, drones should be used for more detailed inspections, especially when it involves capturing images. 

Drones are becoming an essential part of the renewable energy sector, as it revolutionizes the way companies inspect their facilities without putting their staff’s lives in peril. For companies who have not tapped into the transformative benefits of drone technology, they should do so now.