Drones–unmanned aircraft–can be useful tools for PV engineers and those in other industries, especially for large-scale projects that would require engineers to work at heights or cover a large field to gather data.

That’s the word from Keven Gambold, who teaches HeatSpring’s Drone Pilot Boot Camp course, which guides students into becoming licensed commercial drone pilots. These unmanned aircraft are employed in the renewable energy, construction and engineering professions as well as in widespread use for agricultural surveys, infrastructure inspections and public safety roles.

In the solar industry, using a drone and an appropriate software suite can be used throughout all stages of a project’s life cycle: Pre-construction engineers can create a three-dimensional model of the planned site to help design the solar layouts. During construction the imagery provides progress reports and replanning. And when operational, properly equipped unmanned aircraft can inspect the panels for efficiency and damage, according to Scanifly, the leading solar PV software for drone operators.

Cutting Onsite Survey and Design Time by 90%

In fact, the right software, drone and payload combination can cut onsite survey and design time by 90%, says the company. 

Drones gather high-definition data (down to an inch in accuracy) that help create three-dimensional images using modeling software, says Gambold, co-founder and chief executive officer of Unmanned Experts Inc. “You can simulate putting fifteen panels in one location at a certain angle at a certain time of day,” he explains. “You’ll discover where the shadow will be and the likely efficiency level.”

Without the information from drones, it would be necessary to walk the site with traditional and time-consuming survey equipment or hand-held thermal cameras, moving from panel to panel, he says.

“Drones can fly over a solar field at 150 feet and gather all that data. A bird’s eye view is never considered a bad thing; you can cover a lot more space from an advantageous angle more quickly,” he says.

With drones and proprietary software, drone operators can also check agricultural crop health or inspect wind turbine blades, among other tasks, says Gambold.

Ensuring Social Distancing During the COVID-19 Crisis

Drones are especially helpful tools during the COVID-19 crisis because surveyors or engineers can capture details from a property’s edge and ensure social distancing.

In spite of such advantages, the solar industry doesn’t yet fully embrace drones, says Gambold.

“It might take some time for those who have come through college and have gotten the Part 107 federal commercial drone licenses to create a culture of unmanned surveys as standard procedures,” he says.  However, most of his students, generally PV engineers, see them as important tools. 

In Gambold’s course, students learn to obtain their commercial license and comply with Federal Aviation Administraiton (FAA) rules. With this license, successful students are able to charge money to provide drone services.

The first part of the course covers the issues that are important when the drone leaves the ground, “airspace, weather and operational regulations,” he says.

Learning How to Get Into the Field

In the second part of the course, students learn how to get into the field and do a job. 

“You need to have all the equipment charged, cleaned and packed. You need firmware up to date, maps uploaded. You need to pack it all up,  drive out to the site, safely deploy it, keep data safe and bring the drone back and clean it,” says Gambold. 

Because jobs can take four to five days, planning is critical; otherwise operators can encounter logistical snags.  

During the course, students fly the drones using simulators.

Crawling, Walking, Running Approach to Learning 

Gambold’s plans call for a final learning stage–remote or in-person gatherings to fly drones. That’s expected to occur after students obtain their licenses and purchase drones. Since Gambold is teaching his first class right now, only a few in-person flight events have taken place.

 “We do the crawl, walk, run, thing so students are not hazards to themselves,” says Gambold. “There’s nothing more useful than actually flying with other ‘drone’ people.”