Drone-based PV maintenance: Is thermographic inspection heating up?

Ken-Ichi Hino

Drone investment has taken off over the last several years across a range of use cases. One use case is using drones to carry out thermographic analysis of solar PV plants. Thermographic imaging can pinpoint underperforming or malfunctioning equipment through analysis of temperature anomalies, with energy lost as heat indicating problem areas. The use of drones vastly reduces the time spent to carry out such an inspection, with one case study citing reduced inspection times for a 4,000 panel facility from 8 days via human inspection to 5 minutes with drones. In addition to being faster, drone manufacturer Aibotix estimates drone-based inspection costs about roughly half of human inspection costs at €1,800-2,750/day including pilot and operator labor costs.

In terms of the financial benefits of inspection, ucair case studies provide examples where inspections have identified issues with modules, diodes, and strings causing 3-4% decreases in power output. To put this in global context, with a global installed base of approximately 300 GW, a 3% increase in production would result in additional revenue of over $500MM for PV owners. PV installations are projected to grow at 5% or more through 2022, providing a rapidly increasing market for drone-based thermographic inspection.

Despite the potential, development of drones for PV plant inspection has been patchy with limited investor or utility appetite. However, two recent events may signal increasing utility interest in this space:

  • In late March, German energy company RWE’s subsidiary Innogy announced ucair, the newest spin-out from its Innovation Hub, providing drone-based thermographic inspection of PV plants. ucair is pursuing a capital-light model, owning only the software. It is betting that drone owners have excess capacity for their drones, enabling ucair to rent drones from drone owners to carry out their inspections rather than purchasing drones themselves.
  • Several weeks later in April, EDP Starter (Energias de Portugal’s business incubation program) accepted Barcelona-based Cleandrone into its cohort. Cleandrone, like ucair, is exclusively focused on PV plant maintenance and provides thermographic inspection services. However, Cleandrone’s origin (and name) lies in the use of drones for cleaning glass, and the company has designed a drone called the Cleandrone, which is equipped with a cleaning device and a cleaning fluid bottle for PV panel cleaning. The Cleandrone leverages deep learning and computer vision for navigation and positioning, and the company has ported these capabilities to its thermographic inspection drone, called the Sherlock.

Another start-up leveraging machine learning and computer vision for PV inspection is Israel-based Percepto. Percepto is applying machine learning to enable fully autonomous drones with multiple capabilities, thereby eliminating pilot labor costs and maximizing revenue streams. Its core focus is on security applications that leverage its technology, such as first response and perimeter patrol, but has paired this with thermographic inspection for PV plants as well as turbine inspection for wind power facilities.

These three start-ups are part of a growing ecosystem of companies involved in the use of drones for thermographic inspection. While it is relatively early in the development of this application of drones, the value chain suggests an increasingly competitive landscape:

Drone-Based Thermographic PV Inspection Value Chain

One technology to watch as a potential source of defensible competitive advantage is development of autonomous flight solutions. Reducing the labor costs for piloting would further increase the economic attractiveness of drone-based thermographic inspection, and autonomous flight solutions are not easily replicable. Countries with regulations enabling drone operation beyond visible line of sight are the places to watch for signs of development of this technology.

For more, visit CTG Research or contact us at research@cleantech.com

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  • Thank you for this great article, Ken. I do not share your view on autonomous flight being a potential competitive advantage, though. My expectation here is that this technology is going to become a commodity quite soon, easily available to all market participants.