Drones in renewable energy and how crazy the world seems without them
Or, if you’ve never thought about Drones in Renewable Energy then this wouldn’t seem crazy at all.
Sometimes working in a particular industry gives you a blinkered view and you need to step back and forget everything you know and look at how the rest of the world sees it.
The world of drone operating is no different, and whilst it’s still a relatively young industry, you often have to look at just how much it’s changed our workplaces over the last few years.
People think they know about drones
Everyone seems to have an opinion or an experience of drones these days, which is why it can be hard trying to explain to someone about the innovative solutions we see every day.
This is something that someone in the drone industry would be unsurprised by, but it’s a concept that a large majority of the general public don’t understand yet. Drones go in the sky, right?
It can be a refreshing view to challenge yourself to forget everything you know about drones and look at how they’ve impacted the world. And drones in renewable energy is a perfect place to start as there’s a lot of innovation in both areas.
Real-world examples often pass us by, but every now and then we see them in our daily lives. The following two examples came from real-life situations where members of our team were asked “How do they…?”
1. The solar-powered supermarket
We all know that solar panels go on top of houses, but the world is waking up to the real impact of climate change. Every solution needs to be explored to ensure we reverse the damage we’re causing. So, it goes without saying that the roof of supermarkets will become home to waves of solar panels. It makes perfect sense.
When we saw that a local supermarket was having this done recently, the first thing we noticed is the immense amount of scaffolding required to get those panels to the roof. If only they used a drone. Not just for the heavy lifting, but also the maintenance.
We’re not quite at the stage of having construction drones lifting large items like this into place, but it’s not too far away with innovative solutions in development right now.
2. The (how far away is that) wind farm
Take a stroll along the beach in the evening and you’re bound to do what every one of us does in this situation. No, not that. Back in the room. This.
See a light out to see and say “Oh look, a boat”.
Except sometimes you don’t see just one light, you’ll see many lights. Stationary lights. A whole wind farm full of them out in the distance.
And then you start thinking, how do you suppose they access those?
A boat, then a ladder maybe? Do they make cherrypicker ships? I mean, these things are 140m high. That would need a big boat. (It was really hard to not use the famous line from the film Jaws right here).
It finally starts to dawn on you that the drone industry isn’t just a little niche bubble, it’s all around us in places we’d never thought to look before. And in what seems a blink of any eye, they’re becoming part of our every day life.
How drones have affected the renewable energy industry
Drones in the the Solar Power Industry
It’s not just the top of buildings of course. When it comes to using solar for generating power for whole towns and cities, there’s a need for larger solar farms.
With an average of 4-5 acres needed to produce 1MW of power (enough to power around 650 homes), there’s going to be a definite need for solar farms to be built on a large scale.
The building and maintenance of such large areas is a big undertaking. A town with 6500 homes is going to need around 500 acres of solar equipped land to supply it, and that’s a sizeable estate to maintain. Hells bells, that’s the size of Monaco!
Just think of the role drones will play in something like that.
Drones can play a major role in the initial planning of the site, providing aerial data and mapping information for the survey and layout creation. Even with large sites, ensuring that the space available is used efficiently is critical.
During the construction phase, having an aerial view of the progress is also highly beneficial. Regular inspections allow the site management to keep up to date with progress and spot potential problems in advance.
The ability to automate the drone’s flight path means that the whole site can be inspected without areas being missed by human error, or simply not having the time to inspect such a large site to schedule.
In the handover stage, those building the solar farms are able to provide the end-user with a detailed report of the condition of the entire site using images and footage supplied by the drones. A visual record of the condition of the site can be provided to ensure client satisfaction.
Once the site is up and running, the drones’ contribution doesn’t stop there.
Regular inspections will need to be carried out to ensure the site is working correctly, and that each and every panel is operating efficiently. Thermal imaging cameras are particularly useful in this circumstance, giving the operator the ability to highlight panels that may not be performing effectively.
These panels can then be scheduled to be repaired or replaced without having to continually send out inspection teams to monitor performance. Just imagine how long this would take a human with a handheld thermal camera!
The continued safety and security of the site is also highly critical. Having installed thousands of panels, the last thing you’ll want is somebody stealing them, or the sheep from the field next door chewing through cables.
Using drones for security again allows for the entire site to be accessible from above. Those thermal cameras that highlighted cold spots on the panels during the day now have the ability to find unauthorised persons roaming your site at night.
But of course, these large farms are far from the only use of solar panels.
Remember that supermarket roof? What about the home you live in? Your office perhaps.
In many instances, we see these panels fitted to rooftops, and in most cases, access to this area is extremely difficult.
Inspection drones give us a way to ensure regular monitoring of equipment at height, providing a significantly safer option than to send up an engineer when it’s not required. When it is necessary to send someone up to repair or place such equipment, the data and imagery provided by the aerial survey can significantly reduce the time required and potentially diagnose issues in advance.
Accessibility for rooftop surveys is also available 24/7 with a drone. There’s no need to wait until the homeowner is in, or the office is open for roof access.
With the ever-growing use of solar as a renewable energy source, the need to monitor and maintain the efficiency of the equipment is only going to grow with it. The use of drones for solar power operators is a perfect solution.
Drones in the Wind Power Industry
Standing 140ft tall and between 8 and 12 miles out to sea, the Rampion offshore wind farm covers nearly 30 square miles off the southern coast of England.
It’s just one of 35 offshore wind farms in the UK currently, and with the government planning to quadruple offshore wind power by 2030, there will be many more to come.
Add to this the fact that by early 2020 there were over 7000 onshore wind turbines in the UK, and it’s easy to see how fast this industry is growing.
And growing it certainly is, with the latest in giant blades reaching 350ft in length – for one blade.
So how do you inspect something that size?
Whether it’s placed on land or out to sea, inspecting a giant wind turbine is not an easy task. Drones provide us with the opportunity to get up close and personal with these monolithic type structures, however.
Being able to check a turbine standing 80ft+ is a job that almost nothing other than a drone could do. And from the bolts at the base of the blade to the leading edge of the tip, a high-quality camera mounted on an aerial platform is simply the only solution to maintaining these giants.
But just like solar panels, smaller domestic wind turbines are becoming popular too. Chimney pot turbines (or vertical-axis wind turbines) are a popular version of this trend, resembling chimney stacks in appearance so as to placate homeowners not wanting to ‘spoil’ the appearance of their homes.
These also need to be monitored and maintained on occasion. Again the drone comes into its own here when considering the safety and time factor of a service like this. Aerial inspections can take just a few minutes, whilst a physical human inspection is going to require access and the inevitable hazards of working at height.
Smaller versions of the traditional wind turbine are also becoming popular, but by their very nature, these also need to be relatively high up to work effectively. So whether mounted to the roof or self-supporting, our common theme of ease of access makes the drone a natural choice.
The bonus industry: Windmills
Now, we know that windmills might seem a little out of place in an article on drones in renewable energy, but the similarities between wind turbines and windmills are clear.
Whilst windmills are more about the past than the future, it’s equally important that our remaining working mills are kept in the best possible condition.
Defects and possible repairs are hard to spot from ground level, and it’s hard to imagine anyone who would want to try hanging on to the sails! Search for images of Peter O’Toole in the film Man of La Mancha if you want to see how terrifying that looks.
Drones give the wind power industry the ultimate tool for inspecting electricity-generating turbines, but they can be equally as effective at saving our historic windmills.
Drones in the Wave Power industry
The lesser-known cousin of solar and wind power generation, harnessing wave power or tidal stream energy is another important aspect in reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.
The UK was home to the world’s first commercial wave power installation, on the island of Islay in Scotland, although this has since been decommissioned.
The costs of setting up a wave or tidal energy power installation are often huge, usually making this a far bigger undertaking than solar or wind farms. However, this makes the need to protect such an investment even more important.
Whilst the Islay project was based onshore using incoming waves, the majority of installations are based out in open water. Where getting boats up close for inspections raises concerns of possibly causing damage, drones naturally offer the ability to monitor and inspect these facilities safely.
Where these systems are installed near to shore, a drone operator is able to complete inspection without the need for a boat at all. A boat and crew only need be dispatched should the aerial inspection show items of concern.
The range of solutions for wave energy retrieval is far greater than the solar and wind industry, and such variation in designs brings its own problems. Whereas solar panels or wind turbines are generally similar, wave power systems are likely to need specialists who understand the operation of that particular installation.
Training a specialist engineer to use a drone is considerably more cost-effective and beneficial than trying to get a drone operator to understand the complexities of each installation.
Talking of Drone Training
It’s a very valid discussion we often have with a variety of our clients. Hire an operator or bring it in-house?
This is a question we can rarely answer in an article because it’s highly dependant on the circumstance of your particular industry and your business.
If you find that you need a specialist pilot because of the difficulty of the terrain or conditions, then outsourcing to an experienced drone pilot is a great option. They will be able to provide you with all the imagery or data from the flight for you to review.
Where you feel it would be beneficial for your in-house experts to be able to operate the drone, training is available for them to obtain a CAA approved PFfO in order to fly drones commercially.
Drones in Renewable Energy: In conclusion
Whether it’s a solar panel on a house roof or inspecting a 350ft long blade out in the middle of the ocean, drones now offer the ultimate method of cost-effective inspection and increased employee safety.
The added need for enhanced security when providing such essential services to the nation as power generation, remote wind and solar farms can benefit greatly from adopting drone use into their operations.
Stepping back to understand just how much drones have improved some industries, it’s easy to find yourself looking at each new task they perform in wonder.
After all, where would we be without them? Hanging onto windmill sails probably.
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