With a drone and software, solar industry members can reduce the time, costs and errors associated with designing solar systems.

And, as the industry learns more about the benefits of drones, the technology will help move solar energy forward, says HeatSpring instructor Jason Steinberg, CEO of Scanifly, which offers solar design software for use with drones.

Gathering Information Critical to a Solar Project

One of the most important tasks of a solar contractor is to gather data from the site of a potential solar system, data that determines the placement and number of solar panels at the site, he explains. Traditionally, the site surveyors use ladders, tape measures and–30% of the time–roof harnesses to collect this information and write the data down on paper.

“They’re getting measurements, and trying to figure out how many solar panels can fit on a roof, looking at roof health and shingle quality, looking at where skylights are, what the roof plane is, where the chimneys are,” he explains.

Traditional Data Collection Yields Dangers and Errors

This traditional way of collecting information can be dangerous, especially during extreme weather, when, for example, surveyors can take a fall. 

The traditional survey, which generally takes one to two hours, can yield errors if the information gathered isn’t correct. For example, with incorrect data, solar contractors can order the wrong equipment. Such mistakes can tarnish the solar industry’s reputation, says Steinberg.

His company helps solar contractors integrate drones into their work and avoid some of the negatives of traditional data collection.

“Instead of going out with a ladder and tape measure, surveyors can fly a drone for 10 to 15 minutes,” he says.

While Scanifly provides the software, it’s up to the solar contractors to purchase the drones. They generally cost $1,200 to $2,000. Also needed are batteries and chargers, as well as curriculum. It generally costs about $2,400 to equip a solar surveyor with a drone. But the payback on this investment is quick: one to two months, says Steinberg.

Drones Produce JPEG Images

To begin the 10- to 15-minute drone flying process, the surveyor turns on the drone, and it generally flies in circular patterns around a roof, collecting JPEG images (100-250 images for residential projects and up to 750 for larger systems). Those photos are then uploaded to Scanifly software, and within two hours, surveyors have access to 3-D models of the property. With the software, solar contractors can create a module layout, determine fire setbacks and keepout zones for obstructions, and analyze how much solar will be produced while considering shading.

The survey is the single largest factor that affects the successful operation of the project, says Steinberg.

Drones Still New Technology for Solar Surveys

In spite of these benefits, drones are only used about 5% of the time for solar surveys. The traditional ladder-and-pencil method is used much more frequently, he says.

But more and more, the solar industry is embracing drones for other purposes.  They include marketing, construction reporting and identifying problem areas in projects.

For marketing, drones are used to capture photos that can be posted on websites, for example. In construction reporting, drone photos allow for quick status updates for large or multi-roof projects.

“The best way to give status updates is with aerial shots. You should get the drone up in the air every day or week,” says Steinberg. For example, solar contractors and their clients can see systems being assembled.

Drones Can Help Identify Maintenance Issues

Another use of drones is searching for hotspots using thermal infrared cameras. 

“If wiring isn’t functioning, the electrical equipment will start overheating. Using an infrared camera, you can see which parts are hot,” Steinberg explains. Often, for this kind of work, the cameras are attached under a drone.

More and more, industry members are learning about the advantages of drones. Given the cost savings, time savings and potential to eliminate errors, drones are expected to gain in popularity and help power the growth of solar.

“I think it’s ramping up. Over the next year or two, this will continue to really take off, pun intended.” says Steinberg.

Photo by Blake Wheeler on Unsplash