One of the largest American energy companies is looking to drone tech to improve and repair renewable energy sites.
Conceived in 2014, Duke Energy’s inspection drone program now boasts more than 30 drones to inspect solar arrays and large wind turbines. Serving more than 7 million customers across the Midwest and Southeast, the North Carolina-based utility began the program in 2015 by inspecting potentially hazardous parts of a steam plant.
Fast forward to 2016, Duke conducted its inaugural wind-farm inspection followed shortly by a solar array inspection. Drone inspections save dollars and potentially lives – manned inspections can require workers to rappel up turbines hundreds of feet tall and spend arduous hours walking across solar fields in day-long treks.
“As soon as you put an infrared camera on a drone, what used to take three days takes two hours instead,” said Jason Handley, director of smart grid emerging tech and operations for Duke Energy. Speaking during the 2018 ARC Industry Forum in Orlando, Handley lauded UAV tech for quickly and easily targeting failed solar cells by deploying infrared and other sensor arrays from the air.
For wind turbines, Duke drones can easily capture imagery of damaged blades – usually by lightning or bird strikes.
Since the program’s inception four years ago, Duke has improved the program by adding Pix4Dmapper Pro for Orthomosaic to map, stitch still images and enhance video.
Earlier this year, Duke Energy sent its drone team to Puerto Rico to help restore power to remote regions devastated by Hurricane Maria.
Drone technology is proving to be an easy fit for utilities on a global scale. For example, European UAV company Airobot and energy company Mind4Energy have teamed up to deploy UAS to inspect solar farms in Belgium.
In December, Cyberhawk Innovations completed a drone inspection of the Cook Nuclear Plant in Michigan. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers spearheaded the project to inspect two containment domes for American Electric Power.
GeoSUN Africa, a spin-off of CRSSES (Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies) at Stellenbosch University, tasks drones to inspect solar and wind turbine arrays using thermography tools.