Ash has spent close to 20 years in technology research on several sectors, including industrial automation and smart manufacturing, smart home, solar power and energy storage, drones and robotics, medical technology and building automation. Ash is Senior Research Director for our robotics & warehouse automation research, amongst other topics.
The use of UAVs (or drones) in the solar industry has been limited to date, though has the potential for change. Two of the biggest opportunities for deploying UAVs in this sector are for the surveying of sites and roofs to allow for quicker and more accurate solar installation design, and secondly for the monitoring of existing solar installations to provide more timely identification of faults. With more than 300 million solar panels installed globally in 2016 and the industry continuing to grow rapidly, this sector could present an interesting opportunity for drones. However, given the relative immaturity of drone technology and high cost, we expect the short-term uptake to be limited.
Are commercial installations a boon for drones?
In 2016, roughly 1.2 million roof-top solar systems were installed globally, each of which were likely to have required an individual and manual survey to assess suitability, sizing and orientation for adding solar panels. Whilst this sounds like an appealing opportunity, it’s worth noting that nearly three-quarters of these roof-top systems were residential installations which would not have undergone extensive surveying and inspection and in many cases, relied on free satellite imagery and other low cost software to assess suitability and orientation of solar panels.
Last year, major drone marker leader DJI and software provider DroneDeploy announced a partnership to allow for much quicker roof-top inspection ahead of the installation of solar panels using drones equipped with thermal imaging. Given the lower requirement of surveying of residential roofs ahead of adding solar panels, the commercial sector is probably a much more viable segment for this partnership, despite the lower volumes of commercial roof-top solar installations.
The use of drones to assist in the surveying and inspection for large-scale solar farms is much more likely to occur in the future, however. One of the solar industry’s largest developers of solar farms, SunPower, already employs a fleet of drones for this exact purpose.
Some 26,000 ground-mounted ‘solar farms’ were installed globally last year and the industry is keen to find ways to reduce installation costs to allow solar to compete with fossil fuels as their government incentives and subsidies get cut.
Solar costs have dropped by more than half in the past five years driven by oversupply of solar panels and other hardware. Yet, the ‘soft costs’ have been much slower to reduce and now account for a large part of solar farm’s CAPEX. Land surveying, inspection and site design contributes a large amount to these soft costs and the use of drones and analytics software can significantly speed up this process, reducing cost and at the same time potentially improving the solar farm design to allow greater energy yields. This remains a very attractive prospect and we expect many more solar developers to employ drones in future.
UAVs also have an opportunity after the installation of a solar project. Solar systems have a lifetime of 20 years+ and to continue functioning efficiently require continuous monitoring and in case of faults, remedial action.
Drones are already being employed to provide monitoring of faults and performance of large-scale solar farms. Using thermal imaging they can quickly identify faulty or underperforming panels and help alert the operator to enable a much quicker resolution.
Given that these solar farm assets could be generating revenues of hundreds of thousands of dollars per month, it’s not hard to see why reducing the time taken to identify faults is highly desirable. With nearly 150,000 solar farms in operation around the world, covering 800 square miles of land, the potential for drones is massive.