When I meet with people who are building drone programs at large utilities and energy companies, I can count on the question of value coming up first. They want specifics on how drones will speed up operations, lower expenses, and get more work done.
There’s plenty of evidence for these components of the value equation:
- A large solar utility saved close to $170K, a six-fold return on investment, using data collected by drone. The company surveys its array using thermal sensors mounted on a drone, saving workers time and effort while identifying photovoltaic panels that could compromise efficiency.
- Drones can zoom in for close-ups of equipment like flare stacks while they are running, instead of shutting down the system while an inspector climbs the stack to examine it. The reduced downtime can save thousands of dollars.
- Drones mounted with infrared thermography capabilities allow wind power generators to examine blades inside and out, resulting in more advanced intelligence on structural conditions.
But there are other value factors that can be overlooked. Here are four benefits to consider as your company evaluates drone adoption or expansion.
The commercial solar sector is a model for the dramatic productivity gains drones can bring. Drones have revolutionized the way solar energy producers scout potential sites for their farms. Industry leader Sunpower’s drone fleet captures geographic information to create 3D models and maps. These are integrated into the company’s software for site planning and energy harvest estimates. Then, Sunpower crunches the data to determine which plant layout will generate the most megawatts by factoring in the angles of the terrain and optimizing the positioning of panels.
A West Coast solar company found that manual site assessment for a 500kW site takes two technicians up to two days. By contrast, a single drone can map a 1 MW site in just 40 minutes.
Such efficiencies extend beyond just the planning stages — solar power companies often use drones to inspect their arrays, too. Drone surveys can detect specific panels that have gone offline or are underperforming by just flying over with a thermal sensor. Compared to manual inspections, drones can be days faster, with equivalent or even improved results. And with companies exploring future innovations like autonomous drones and remote deployments, site inspections could be as easy as the push of a button.
Improved Worker Safety
Consider this list of the most common safety standards citations that companies get after OSHA inspections.
- Fall protection
- Respiratory protection from harmful dusts, gases, vapors, and sprays
- Control of hazardous energy
- Eye and face protection
In many cases, drones can reduce worker exposure to these on-the-job dangers. Using drones in hazardous areas can literally save lives.
Because utilities and energy companies work in hazardous environments, drones are well-suited to reduce employee exposure to some of these risks:
- Climbing towers and poles
- Toxins from ash ponds or smokestacks
- High-voltage electrical equipment
- Going up in bucket trucks
- Dangerous areas during disaster recovery, like washed-out access roads
- Water hazards during dam inspections
On a related note, OSHA estimates that employers across the U.S. pay almost $1 billion per week for direct workers’ compensation costs alone. And that doesn’t include the indirect costs such as accident investigation, corrective measures, replacement employee training, repairs to property or equipment, lost productivity, and lower employee morale.
Drones can help companies avoid workers’s comp claims and everything that goes with them by reducing worker hazards to begin with.
New Insights from Data Not Previously Captured
Drones capture high-resolution imagery that tells a more complete story about the status of equipment. This allows maintenance crews to understand whether observed damage is surface level or structural. Because drones provide new angles, inspectors can now see more of the equipment and spot defects that manual inspections can easily miss.
These insights bring a variety of benefits. Plant managers can stay better informed about needed repairs. Vegetation encroachment can be caught sooner, because surveillance of power lines can be done so much faster — and more frequently. All this can reduce energy production interruptions, and potentially the risk of fire sparked by faulty equipment.
Connected Drones: The Next Competitive Edge
Imagine a fleet of autonomous drones programmed to carry out scheduled maintenance, detecting and avoiding others with automated intelligence instead of an active pilot. Drones could scan hundreds of miles of power poles beyond visual line of sight after a windstorm and produce results in real time as it streams aerial imagery to the office.
Some of these technologies already exist today, while others may be available soon thanks to edge computing, faster 5G mobile networks, AI, and machine learning. Automated analysis and decision-making will likely become the norm, while manual analysis will become a thing of the past. This will open up new possibilities for regular maintenance, disaster response, and further improved efficiency. And companies that prepare for the future of connected drones are likely to enjoy a competitive advantage.