Harnessing the Power of Drone-Based Technology Across the Solar PV Asset Lifecycle

The following is an excerpt from our solution brief, Solar PV Asset Lifecycle Management, which explores how a drone-based platform can provide new levels of safety and efficiency in solar energy operations. Download the solution brief to learn more.

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Solar energy is experiencing significant growth in the U.S., with the total installed photovoltaic (PV) capacity expected to more than double over the next five years. In fact, over 15 GW of PV capacity will be installed annually by 2023.

While innovations in plant design, rooftop installations, and service clustering have lowered solar asset maintenance costs (in some cases by half in the past few years), there is still significant potential to further reduce costs, and reduce asset downtime.

O&M providers, EPC firms, and asset owners currently rely on plane flyovers or ground inspections using handheld sensing devices to check for anomalies detection, induced degradation, module mismatch, and other issues.

Some organizations have developed their own drone programs to collect data and identify issues, but that isn’t always cost-effective. You need drones, sensors, and FAA-compliant pilots. And then, of course, there is the issue of how to interpret the data.

Whether you need to monitor the performance of your solar PV system operator, inspect a site for warranty claims, or just want your investment to perform optimally, PrecisionHawk provides a flexible, cost-effective way to inspect your system assets.

Our drone-based solution even integrates with your asset management program, offering you data and analytics you can use to manage solar PV installs across the lifecycle of the assets.

The results are clear. By deploying a drone-based platform, you can:

  • Reduce the time required to conduct inspections by up to 90%
  • Identify 10-times as many issues
  • Limit hazardous manhours
  • Lower data acquisition costs
  • Standardize data collection to understand how assets are aging
  • Predict future outages and prioritize needed repairs

Selecting the appropriate hardware

A safe and effective flight is founded on drone hardware. But, solar farms present a challenging environment for aircraft, being located in windy areas and having unique aerodynamics caused by heat. Our drone operators—a.k.a pilots—fly hardware that’s purpose-built for such a challenging environment: They’re lightweight, but rugged, and include rotor blade guards to mitigate the damage that could occur on contact.

Our services work for both polycrystalline and thin-film panels. We use thermal infrared (IR) sensors for both types of panels. IR sensors are particularly helpful in finding dangerous fire-threat conditions on thin-film panels. Non-infrared sensors, adjusted for the thin-film module, are used to determine the module condition. Visual images are used to determine the physical condition and soiling level. For all panel types, we can calculate temperature differentials between cells to less than a degree of accuracy, a key for determining warranty coverage eligibility.


Operating flight software: PrecisionFlight

To execute missions, our pilots use PrecisionFlight. The software’s intelligent flight planning enables operators to deploy manual, semi-autonomous, and fully autonomous missions that comply with regulations and safety management systems.

A typical mission looks like this:

  1. Prior to a mission, the drone operator defines a flight plan by combining turbine specifications with 3D geospatial data, such as the surrounding terrain and no-fly zones.
  2. To identify potential issues, they emulate the flight in PrecisionFlight, setting additional boundaries, as necessary.
  3. Once on-site, operators load the plan (no connectivity required), deploy the drone, and monitor it—using flight telemetry—as it automatically captures data along a precise flight path, predetermined by a set of waypoints.
  4. The drone captures imagery of the panels. If issues requiring further inspection surface during autonomous flight, the operator can manually navigate to the area of concern.
  5. After the mission, the pilot can “replay” the mission to assess mission efficacy and optimize the flight plan.

While gaining a measure of asset conditions at a single point in time is useful, you can obtain greater insight by tracking trends over a given period. Using PrecisionFlight’s repeatable flight plans, operators are able to capture multiple data sets, from separate missions, that precisely correlate.

Conducting safe and effective flight operations

Beyond flight software, the skills of your drone operators are critical to the safety and effectiveness of your drone-based inspections. The pilot in command must understand your objectives and follow rigorous procedures, regardless of whether they’re your own staff or PrecisionHawk’s experienced flight operators.

To meet these requirements, PrecisionHawk’s leaders—many of whom are former Navy Top Gun pilots—developed our industry-leading drone operating procedures:

  1. Mission Requirements—Understand the assets and area of interest to be inspected and specific requirements of the mission—in this case, solar panels
  2. Mission Readiness—Complete a rigorous training program for the complete mission lifecycle, from analyzing airspace around the solar farm to flying panels in various positions while managing unusual solar farm aerodynamics.
  3. Procedure—Follow flight standards, a comprehensive mission checklist, safety management systems and incident protocols
  4. Regulatory Compliance—Comply with guidelines, designed by our policy analysts, to limit regulatory exposure
  5. Quality Assurance—Verify that the data meets quality requirements using PrecisionHawk’s offline field analysis tool; identify anomalies, omissions, and other issues prior to delivery
  6. Data Secure Chain of Custody—Protect mission data by following secure transportation, transmission, and destruction protocols
  7. Continuous Improvement—Engage in a continuous improvement plan, reporting lessons learned and applying them to future operations

These are principles we require of all PrecisionHawk’s flight stakeholders. Whether they’re our 100-plus full-time pilots, the more than 15,000 pilots in our drone pilot network, or our clients’ own staff, we’ve designed our training regimen to help professionals of any background achieve this standard of excellence. And everyone, from program directors to visual observers, is responsible for maintaining discipline in the field.

A streamlined system of integrating data

After you collect data, you need a focused system for analyzing and processing it. Sure, your analysts can pore over the terabytes of raw imagery and video that result from drone-based inspections. But, by harnessing the power of machine learning, you can hone the process, improving the overall precision and time-to-value of your module health analysis.


With our aerial intelligence platform, drone operators can upload data and imagery into PrecisionHawk’s cloud-based system, PrecisionAnalytics Solar, which cross-references the uploaded imagery against thousands of terabytes of PV data, flagging issues.

PrecisionAnalytics Solar features include:

  • Fleet and Site Statistics—Get a comprehensive view of your assets. Segment your fleet and surface health trends at the portfolio or site-level: view rolled-up statistics on module damage severity, issues, and other measures you identify.
  • Solar Site at-a-Glance—Hone in on problem areas. Navigate solar farms by block and panel, changing the transparency of map layers for inspection results, panel outlines, and thermal infrared data.
  • Detailed Views—View full-resolution imagery and zoom-in on key issues. View modular-level data, with panels color-coded by issues—such as hot panels, diode, panel offline, string offline, panel off-tilt, panel off rack, soiling, shading, reverse polarity, and glass broken—and statistics by issue at the site level. Hover over a module to see module ID, finding, and measurements, including temperature delta between hot panel and the average of the site.
  • In-situ Communication—Create and edit annotations and store metadata, such as the type of observation, your finding, the size of the issue, damage severity, and other parameters. Add comments to other stakeholders.
  • Historical Recordkeeping—Investigate the genesis of an issue. View historical imagery for the same location on the site from prior inspections to identify potential precursors to the issue at-hand.

Typical issues that analysts identify using drone-based imagery include:

  • Physical damage
  • Cell-level defects and degradation
  • Bad diodes
  • Strings or modules offline
  • Soiling
  • Potential Induced Degradation (PID)
  • Reverse polarity
  • Module mismatch
  • Storm damage
  • Rack shifts
  • Vegetation encroachment
  • Shading
  • Foreign objects

Our team of data analysts can produce these annotations or we can leave it up to you.

Actioning data

Once analysts have produced their findings, others need to take action. But how do you give cross-functional and external stakeholders the insights they need (without exposing them to the voluminous detail)?

PrecisionAnalytics Solar’s flexible reporting and integration features enable you to distribute information across your organization—whether it be exporting an Excel and Word document or integrating with other software, such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and asset management systems. This allows for faster fixes to issues.

By developing a workflow and communication protocol that maximizes the potential of your aerial intelligence, each of these tools will let you turn data into action. And in doing so, your stakeholders will benefit from the power of drones.

Put drone-based aerial intelligence to work

Our industry experts can assist in your evaluation of when, where, and how to incorporate drone-based aerial intelligence into your operations. Our global network of drone operators and trainers are ready to execute safe, efficient, and effective flights on your behalf. And our engineers are daily optimizing PrecisionAnalytics to better automate and accelerate your imagery analysis and reporting. Through all, we’re with you every step of the way.

Download our full solution brief for more details on how you can use drone-based aerial intelligence across the solar PV asset lifecycle.

To speak with one of our consultants about our Solar Solution, contact us.