EPRI says drones could help maintain solar power projects


Unmanned aircraft systems—popularly known as drones—can be equipped with a variety of new technologies to provide savings in time and labor for operations and maintenance of solar photovoltaic systems, according to a new report by EPRI.

Worldwide deployments of solar photovoltaic are accelerating, leading to an increased emphasis on cost-effective O&M practices. Large, utility-scale PV systems, which comprise about 45 percent of global installations, can exceed several hundred megawatts, spanning tens of thousands of modules and thousands of acres.

Aerial robotics offer several potential advantages by automating tasks such as visual imaging of modules, wiring, and other plant components; using infrared thermography to detect hot spots, which indicate module failures; and vegetation monitoring.

Benefits include time savings and labor efficiency, flexible dispatch, increased accessibility, enhanced data collection, and application stacking, in which a device can perform a variety of applications independently or concurrently.

Future UAS capabilities, such as data analytics through pattern recognition and change detection, could offer additional potential benefits through predictive methods for gauging plant health and optimizing strategic O&M responses.

“Aerial systems have the potential to provide significant benefits and savings for the electric utility industry, and some utilities are beginning to explore the use of the technology,” said Tom Alley, vice president of EPRI’s Generation research. “EPRI is collaborating with its members to further characterize, develop, and validate a variety of applications, and PV O&M is one that is gaining interest globally.”

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