UAV drone inspecting solar panels

How Drones Are Helping to Build Solar Plants

    How Drones Are Helping to Build Solar Plants

    Solar energy is one of the many renewable energy sources that are rapidly being developed in the United States to provide clean energy for homes and businesses while reducing dependence on fossil fuels. As the prices of solar panels have been steadily declining over the past decade, companies are looking for more methods to continue to cut costs and compete with the long-standing standard of fossil fuel power. One of the methods that have begun to be implemented lately is the use of drones.

    How do Drones Help Solar Farms?

    SunPower, a solar company based near the San Francisco Bay Area, has begun to use drones to gather aerial images of their solar arrays for surveying and design purposes. About a decade ago, the surveying of a site intended to be used for setting up a solar array as a solar farm would require dispatching a large crew on the ground to gather information such as the steepness of slopes, vegetation, shaded regions from trees, and other environmental obstacles and interferences. Today, SunPower claims that using software and data collected by drones enables engineer to design projects up to 90% faster, while using optimized solar arrays to cover a smaller area of land.

    How Do They Help? 

    The aerial images taken by the drones are overlaid with blocks that are drafted to represent scaled solar panels and inverters, which convert the DC power produced by the panels into electricity used by the grid. These detailed photographs and designs are then fed into programs with complex algorithms that analyze hundreds of factors in regards to the optimal layout and land usage for the solar panels, evaluating specifications that otherwise may be missed by human engineers, and in a fraction of the time. Factors can include anything from the location of the transmission lines to the area of shade that will be created by panels as they follow the sun throughout the day.

    Drones aren’t only useful for the design and construction of the farms, but also the maintenance and operation. Drones can be used in a similar manner to evaluate solar farms that are already up and running, monitoring existing panels and identifying units that are malfunctioning or not producing properly.

    Environmental Benefits 

    The use of drones provides additional environmental benefits to supplement the increased efficiency in design. By optimizing the layout of solar panels, more solar panels can be fit into the same amount of land, effectively reducing the amount of land required to produce an equivalent amount of energy. This effect is particularly beneficial as the reduction in land usage can somewhat appease environmentalists who are concerned with the usage of land for solar farms, and allows solar energy, an important development in alternative energy, to be viewed in a more positive light. The additional efficiency created by the drones also increases the viability of solar power as an energy option, benefitting the push for fossil fuels to be replaced by clean, renewable energy in the future.

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