Drone inspections are helping the renewable energy industry become faster, cheaper and more efficient.
The last decade has been the warmest on record. With rising sea levels, melting glaciers and changing precipitation patterns, extreme weather events have become much more severe and frequent. The need to switch to clean energy has never been more important. But with new energy infrastructure comes new challenges.
In particular, as the scale and number of renewable energy facilities increase to meet our growing demand for green energy, safe and efficient inspections are even more important.
Drones are proving to be solutions to our growing demands for renewable energy infrastructure. Able to fly quickly over solar fields and wind turbines, drones can alert inspection teams to any defects or areas that need to be addressed.
Wind power is becoming one of the fastest growing renewable technologies. As costs fall, wind power is on the rise worldwide. Onshore and offshore capacity has increased by a factor of nearly 75, from 7.5 gigawatts (GW) in 1997 to 564 GW in 2018, according to IRENA.
Wind is a clean, free and readily available renewable energy source. It is harnessed through the use of wind farms and often individual turbines. Wind rotates the turbine blades and changes kinetic energy into rotational energy. The turbine shaft turns and is connected to a gearbox inside the nacelle that sends the energy to a generator, converting it into electricity.
With the growth of wind power, drones are increasingly being used to analyze wind turbines for defects and damage. Because turbine repair is incredibly expensive, up to $30,000 per turbine per year, along with lost revenue from downtime days due to damage, early inspection and analysis are essential.
Traditionally, wind energy site operators have had to employ two methods of inspection: rope or platform access and ground inspection, in which a photographer uses a telephoto lens to capture images of the blades from the ground. Rope access has a high risk factor and insurance costs make it expensive. It is also a lengthy process, with a complete inspection of a single wind turbine taking 3 to 6 hours. This is in addition to the various safety inspections and preparation time. On-ground inspections often produce poor results due to the fast-moving blades. With inspections required 2-3 times per year for each turbine, costs can become very high.
This is where drones come in. For example, DJI’s wind-resistant RTK drones take only 45 minutes to fully inspect a turbine. The drone can be flown manually or using an automated flight mission and can be deployed in minutes, leaving technicians safely on the ground.
Being wind-resistant, DJI’s RTK module on the Matrice 300 is the perfect solution for inspecting turbines in often adverse environmental conditions. The drone is capable of carrying several payloads, including the Zenmuse H20, which gives the operator the ability to get incredibly detailed close-up views. Using the H20T’s thermal sensor, the thermal profile of a blade can be captured to identify signs of delamination or water damage.
If we could capture just 18 days of energy from sunlight on Earth, it would be equivalent to all the energy stored in the entire planet’s coal, oil and natural gas reserves. Of course, we are only able to harvest a small amount of this energy, but harnessing solar energy is making a substantial difference to the planet.
Solar power farms are already relatively efficient because they are less likely to experience large-scale failures by being distributed and modular. Distributed systems are spread over a considerable area, so a problem such as a severe weather event in one place will not interrupt the power supply to an entire region. Modular systems consist of many individual solar arrays. Thus, even if some of the panels in the system are not operational, the rest can usually continue to operate. However, this means that identifying and repairing faulty panels and equipment is critical to minimizing the loss of power production; dirty solar panels can lose up to 20-50% of their power output.
Solar panel drones enable quick and cost-effective monitoring and inspection of solar farms, which means that operation and maintenance are disrupted at a minimum; increasing performance profits. The use of drones to examine solar farm panels has become widespread due to the variety of remote inspection and surveillance capabilities (RGB and infrared cameras).
Previously, a team of workers using only hand tools would inspect the often huge solar plant on foot. This was expensive, time-consuming, and often resulted in assessing only 2-3% of the total plant. Now, using drones such as the Matrix 300 RTK mounted with a Zenmuse H20T hybrid visual-thermal camera, complete surveys can be done at a fraction of the cost and in a short time.
The drone flies through the solar plant capturing thermal and visual images of the panels. After the flight, software such as DJI Terra can process the images to produce a report that allows operators to identify faulty units that need to be cleaned or repaired. If the thermal camera detects excessive heat levels, it indicates that a panel is damaged or defective because the panel cannot absorb heat normally.
Drone footage is excellent evidence for insurance claims. While it is almost impossible to see an entire property with the human eye, a drone can buzz through a site in no time. Hard-to-see spaces, especially underground spaces, can be observed via a drone, and when they are equipped with night vision cameras, this is even easier. Whether for safety or compliance, these claims are supported by accurate and clear drone images.
To meet energy demands, solar power companies must install thousands of solar panels spread over large and typically highly irradiated areas. Essentially, a solar farm requires about 2,500 acres to provide energy for 100,000 households.
Traditional solar array assessments consist of inspecting each panel with handheld thermal imaging cameras for faulty cells or wires. During this process, staff must manually keep track of the locations of defective panels to perform maintenance later. Given the size of most solar farms, this inspection method is inefficient and results in a heavier, and sometimes dangerous, workload for maintenance and operations teams.
The integration of drone technology has undoubtedly improved the efficiency and accuracy of the inspection process. Drones such as the DJI Matrice 300 RTK can survey large areas within a solar farm, collecting high-resolution RGB and thermal images during a single flight.
Drones are continually being used on solar farms to improve inspection operations, particularly areas that are highly irradiated and create a variety of problems for on-site teams. The use of drones allows solar farm teams to reduce inspection time by 70 percent, a significant reduction compared to traditional methods.
Inspecting solar farms using drones is not a simple flying task. The process requires detailed planning and a thorough knowledge of the area to be inspected. There are several steps required to conduct a successful inspection.
First, the inspection team must confirm the size of the solar farm before an effective plan can be prepared. Each inspection has its own characteristics, but there are some common aspects to pay attention to during the assessment phase. These include the area of the farm, the number of panels installed, and the power generation capacity.
Flight plans are created based on the information gathered during the assessment phase and the capacity of the inspection team (i.e., available drones and pilots). After assessing the Ground Sample Distance (GSD) required by the customer and the battery capacity of the drones, the maximum area that can be covered per flight can be confirmed. These flight plans are then imported into the DJI Pilot app, helping to prepare drone operators for execution.
At this point, the inspection team should have the necessary information and flight plan to begin operations. Multiple batteries are recommended, and the inspection team should ensure that batteries are changed and recharged regularly to optimize workflow. Depending on the size of the solar farm and flight plans, inspection teams can usually perform up to 25 flights and collect more than 6,500 images per day.
All collected data must be stored and organized for processing. The photogrammetry software reconstructs RGB ortho-mosaics and heat maps from the images obtained. It also adjusts the positioning using Ground Control Points. After the reconstruction and positioning adjustments have been set up, the mapping files can be integrated into a Geographic Information System, where maintenance teams can quickly identify anomalies that reflect potential failures.
Despite a common misconception, nuclear power plants provide carbon-free energy. Nuclear power is also the most reliable source of power generation. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), nuclear electricity generation prevents the release of 528 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year.
However, nuclear power plants present special challenges to keeping employees healthy and safe. Workers are sometimes required to enter high-dose areas to ensure plant safety. Taking the life-threatening risk out of these necessary activities is one way to make plants safer. Drones are one such solution used to inspect hazardous rooms, monitor the condition of radioactive waste tanks, and read meters in high-dose areas.
Nuclear power plants are highly regulated and safety-conscious. Accidents resulting in leaks can have major consequences, so inspection processes are rigorous and critical. However, these inspections have traditionally been time-consuming, expensive, and carry a high risk factor; they often involve simply a worker in a radiation suit with a flashlight.
Drones can access hard-to-reach and potentially dangerous locations quickly and safely. The M300 RTK with the Zenmuse H20T is one such solution. Its thermal capabilities allow inspectors to detect potential defects or structural stresses that are invisible to the naked eye. The M600 Pro is another alternative with its ability to carry a heavy payload (6 kg) and compatibility with several Zenmuse cameras and third-party sensors.
Click here to read how one of the fastest growing drone distributors in North America, Empire Drone, created a custom drone solution for a nuclear facility using DJI’s M600 platform.
Renewable energy is expected to increase by 7.1 percent every year until 2040. They are expected to surpass coal as the main source of energy by the end of the decade. Their growth will be the fastest in the electricity sector, supplying nearly a third of all energy demand within two years; up from 24 percent in 2017.
Such growth means employing and developing innovations to make the inspection of energy sites of all types safer, faster and more cost-effective. Drones are already working successfully in this field and will continue to provide answers to potential problems. They have proven to be a game-changer in an energy industry that is adapting for the most important reason of all; the future of the Earth.
The Phantom 4 RTK is a compact drone that is particularly suitable for low-altitude mapping.
It can capture centimeter-accurate data while requiring fewer ground control points than traditional surveying methods-saving time and reducing on-site risk.
Having all photos accurately georeferenced directly from the drone allows for more consistent maps to be used for engineering needs.
The position of the drone is within 1.5 cm horizontally and 2 cm vertically while taking photos, compared to a stock drone with a position accuracy of 60 centimeters in both directions.
The Phantom 4 RTK benefits from the DJI GS RTK app and radio control with integrated screen.
This provides operators with a simplified control scheme for surveying.
The dedicated GS RTK app allows pilots to intelligently control the drone with multiple planning modes, including photogrammetry (2D and 3D), waypoint flight, and terrain awareness.
Another advantage of the Phantom 4 RTK is its radio control, since the Phantom 4 RTK has an all-in-one radio control, it solves the problem of having to worry if the display tablet is charged. Then the interchangeable batteries are a huge advantage for multiple or large operations. No more need to wait for the equipment to recharge, just swap the batteries.