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Drones Reduce Solar O&M Costs by $1,254 per MW

image credit: Case Study Increasing Solar Inspection Efficiency with Drones. Measure.
Ryan Bliss's picture
Founder/Chief Pilot Infrared Aerial

We are a specialty drone services provider that delivers an unmatched level of expertise in the field of aerial inspections. As our chief pilot, I am an aviation expert experienced in flying both...

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  • May 4, 2020
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With years of experience performing aerial inspections of utility scale solar plants, one of the largest aerial solar inspection companies in the world has conducted a study to determine how much faster, safer and more cost efficient it is to perform aerial inspections compared to manual inspections. In this post we will examine the results of this study.

This study involved 4 utility scale solar plants ranging in capacity from 12.5 MW to 74 MW. The purpose of the study was to report the time savings, cost savings and reduction in hazardous man hours at each site. Drone inspections were completed using aerial infrared (IR) and compared to relevant manual inspections at each site. Site 1 was compared to clamp testing with 20% IV curve tracing testing. Site 2 was compared to Voc/Isc testing at the combiner box with visual inspection. Site 3 was compared to 100% hand-held IR scanning with 15% IV curve tracing testing. Site 4 was compared to 100% IV curve tracing testing.

The results of the study (see Figure 1) demonstrate that drone inspections were 97% faster than manual inspections. Cost savings due to efficiency gains averaged $1,254 per MW (range of $1074 to $1717 per MW). From a safety perspective, each site managed to almost completely eliminate hazardous man hours by using drones.

The aerial inspection company took this study one step further by asking global power company AES to compare the accuracy of inspection results performed by a drone to the accuracy of inspection results performed manually. The inspection data collected by drone matched the data collected manually with 99% accuracy, but the manual inspection took two days while the drone inspection only took two hours.

We are reducing high-risk activities by using new technologies to improve safety, increase efficiencies, and enhance overall company asset management,” explained Assel Ayapova, Global Drone Program Manager for AES Corporation.

Drone inspections can lower inspection costs, shorten inspection times, and improve preventative maintenance by reducing losses that accrue over time. They enable predictive maintenance to prevent problems from developing, reduce losses due to unscheduled downtime and streamline inventory management.

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Thank Ryan for the Post!
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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on May 4, 2020

I would have expected that the larger a solar plant was, the more relative efficiency gain there would be from having a drone-based inspection process. Why is that not the case?

Ryan Bliss's picture
Ryan Bliss on May 5, 2020

You bring up a great point as both small & large solar plants benefit in equal proportions from aerial inspections. The efficiency gains that come from the significantly increased speed of aerial inspections, which also drives the cost of inspections down, vs. manual inspections stays relatively constant ~97% and is already quite high.  The cost savings will increase proportionally (roughly) with the size of the solar plant and this has driven the adoption of aerial inspections in the solar market.  Many of the large solar O&M's are using either 3rd party drone service providers or in-house pilots to conduct aerial inspections due to the associated cost savings.

In a study that was published in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews in 2016 it was found that "Utilizing thermographic drones comes out to be cost-effective and a much less time-consuming option for fault diagnosis of large-scale PV plants."1

In an article published in Solar Builder in 2019 it was stated that "The rise in drone technology is proving to be a crucial tool for inspecting both small and large solar fields alike."2

It's a very exciting & rewarding time to be in the solar energy market :) 

1. J.A. Tsanakas et al.  Faults and infrared thermographic diagnosis in operating c-Si photovoltaic modules: A review of research and future challenges.  Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 62 (2016) 695-709.

2. Take a Heat Peek: Leveraging the power of drones and thermal imaging for solar inspections.  Solar Builder November 2019.

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