By Katie O’Leary, Director of Product Marketing at DroneDeploy
With growing demand for clean energy across multiple sectors, an increasing number of consumers are transitioning to solar power for their homes. According to recent statistics, the U.S. alone has installed enough solar panels to power 21.8 million homes, and advancements in panel hardware have made solar energy more accessible to consumers by dropping installation costs.
However, solar companies are still exploring new ways to keep up with rising consumer demand and prepare for a more sustainable future. Some companies, including national solar and battery installer Sunrun, have turned to drones to transform the planning and design process. Along the way, these companies have discovered a variety of safety and efficiency benefits that have changed the way they do business.
The Rise of Residential Solar and Consumer Demand
The start of the modern movement toward widespread residential solar can be traced to Congress’ Solar Energy Research, Development and Demonstration Act of 1974, which aimed to make solar energy options feasible and affordable to the public. Paired with 2006’s Solar Investment Tax Credit, consumers soon had new financial and sustainability incentives to reduce their carbon footprint. And demand isn’t subsiding. The size of the U.S. residential solar PV market is expected to reach $14.1 billion by 2028, mainly due to the increasing awareness of alternative energy options and technological improvements over the past few decades.
While the increase in consumer demand means fantastic things for the sustainability movement, the solar industry is still running into many roadblocks. Like many other sectors, it faces supply-chain challenges and a global shortage of semiconductors, which are integral in converting sunlight to electricity. Furthermore, when it comes to the solar power industry, recruiting, hiring, and training technicians to keep up with the heightened demand is a lengthy process that costs companies precious time and valuable resources.
In response, companies like Sunrun have turned to drones for on-site surveys and mapping of installation environments. Utilizing this technology to work alongside the site technicians can help avoid delays and accelerate installation timelines.
The Use of Drones for On-site Surveys
While certain installations may still require site technicians to lean a ladder against a home and traverse the roof for initial surveys, these days Sunrun is also incorporating drones into the process. Sunrun uses drones and mapping technologies like DroneDeploy to quickly, safely and effectively map and measure rooftops before panel installations.
Previously, surveys involved laborious manual tasks: measuring rooftops and obstructions (chimney, plumbing vent, etc.), capturing 360° photos of surrounding environments, and physically sketching the site to then pass off to designers to recreate in AutoCAD. These surveys could take upwards of four hours, limiting each technician to approximately two to three sites per day. Not only does this process take a physical toll on technicians, but can be complex and time consuming.
Drone technology allows technicians to fly entire sites in approximately 15 minutes or less and quickly share those digital twins with other team members. Once uploaded, Sunrun designers can accurately provide a layout for solar panel installations on each residence.
In Sunrun’s case, the company first ventured into drone usage in early 2020, when it purchased its first fleet of 110 drones and trained each site technician to be Part 107-certified pilots. Today, Sunrun has expanded the program to encompass about 250 site technicians. These technicians can conduct as many as 1,500 flights per week, mapping and measuring customer roofs safely from the ground.
What This Means for the Consumer
There’s little question that expanding residential solar programs is a net good for the larger sustainable energy transition. Over its lifetime, the average Sunrun solar home will prevent harmful carbon emissions equal to driving 498,778 miles in an average car – more than enough to drive to the moon and back.
Drones are aiding in this sustainable energy transition by improving the installation experience while passing the time and cost savings over to consumers. Since using drones, Sunrun has reduced appointment duration by approximately 45 minutes per job and freed up technician capacity to inspect more roofs over the course of a week. To date, Sunrun has already leveraged DroneDeploy to map little over 70,000 homes.
While the advancements made in residential solar through drones are impressive, this is only the beginning. The growing potential of reality capture solutions like DroneDeploy and hardware advancements could introduce completely autonomous site surveys in the (hopefully) near future, hastening the consumer journey toward clean energy.
Katie O’Leary is the Director of Product Marketing at DroneDeploy, where she helps companies across a variety of industrial verticals improve the efficiency and safety of their operations through drone usage and aerial insights. Prior to DroneDeploy, Katie has worked with various other software companies in marketing and product marketing roles. She is based in the Bay Area.