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

By Ken-Ichi Hino, for Cleantech

Jul 14, 2017

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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.

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. Several weeks later in April, EDP Starter (Energias de Portugal’s business incubation program) accepted Barcelona-based Cleandrone into its cohort.

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