A little extra spending cash from the corporate tax breaks might have solar companies considering technology upgrades. If a drone is at the top of your wish list, there are a few questions you should ask yourself first.
What do I want to use a drone for?
Using a drone to take completed project photos or videos for marketing materials is a relatively easy task for solar contractors to take on. Drones can also be useful for site assessment or thermal imaging for O&M, and there are many hardware and software developers that provide add-ons for solar use (like Scanifly and Raptor Maps). Enthusiastic contractors can pick up these tasks with training.
When the data you’re looking for ends up being too much for you and your team to handle, drone service companies (like Drone Dispatch and Measure) have the expertise to step in. Measure has a nationwide team of drone pilots to assist with services like site assessment, shade analysis, O&M inspections, site reports and other data organization. Drone service companies can be especially helpful when working on a large portfolio of ground-mounts.
Power generation company AES Corp. recently tapped Measure to be its drone service provider for energy sites across 17 countries. Measure’s solar solution manager Kristen Avila said AES attempted to start its own internal drone program but soon realized working with an outside company with data support made more sense. Using drones for site inspections and O&M checks is expected to save AES 30,000 hours of hazardous work each year.
“We’re platform agnostic. We’re not selling a software device or hardware for drones,” Avila said. “We’re providing a fleet of services tailored to specific customer needs.”
Once you establish your drone desire and scope of work, then you can decide if purchasing an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or hiring a third-party service works best for your company.
What licensing do I need?
All commercial drones heavier than 55 lbs must be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). And all drone operators using a UAV for commercial purposes—and just taking photos of completed solar projects falls under this category—must have a Part 107 qualification provided by the FAA. This requires you to have a remote pilot airman certificate, which is akin to an automobile driving test and administered by the FAA. Check the FAA website for testing locations and certification timeframes.
There are also basic rules you must follow: not flying above 400 ft or within 5 miles of an airport (without airport permission), keeping your drone within sight, only flying during daylight and adhering to a 100-mph speed limit, among other requirements. All regulations are addressed during your drone registration and certification exam.
What level of skill do I need?
Basic drone operation can be picked up with practice, but Measure lead pilot Tony Zimlich said large-scale use is more complicated than just getting the hang of a remote controller.
“As we’ve seen from more experience, there are so many variables involved with flying these sites,” Zimlich said. “If you don’t have knowledgeable pilots to assess terrain, weather [or] airspace, then you could really get yourself into trouble.”
Measure has strict operating procedures, and most of its pilots are either retired or former military members or civilian pilots with commercial licenses. At each site, pilots follow checklists to ensure successful and safe drone operation.
“We tend to impress clients with our on-site operations,” Zimlich said. “They don’t really know what to expect when a drone company shows up, but when they see the procedures we have in place, it may shift their thinking toward having the professionals do this instead of a hobbyist.”
Drone service companies have more resources for training and data gathering, but you can still do this on your own with the right gumption. Measure has programs in place to pass on its knowledge to interested teams.
“We do have a resource where we could help a solar company develop their own in-house team,” Avila said. “Employees would be trained by Measure’s pilots. We would help provide all the drone equipment they would need to complete their inspections. We support the backend data processing requirements of that in-house team.”
Drones are becoming more commonplace in the solar industry. You just have to decide if you want to be the pilot or take advantage of the established skills of an outside company.