Newly certified U.S. commercial drone operators since late August 2016: 37,000. Newly installed U.S. solar capacity in all of 2016: 14.8 GW.
These numbers, laid out in March by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), respectively, painted a picture of two growing industries from two different worlds. In a speech, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta discussed the “new age of American aviation,” the drone industry, which is “moving at a quicker pace than anything we’ve seen before,” he said.
Meanwhile, in a SEIA/GTM Research report, which touted 2016 as the best year yet for U.S. solar, SEIA President Abigail Ross Hopper mentioned that “more people are benefiting from solar now than at any point in the past.”
Both industries, however, admitted some expected speed bumps to come. Huerta brought up a “unique set of challenges” the drone industry faces before more widespread adoption can take place, and Hopper mentioned a “changing market” for U.S. solar, which is expected to experience a 10% dip this year in newly installed capacity.
When Solar Industry checked in on the drones-in-solar market last summer, the FAA was just finalizing its new rules for commercial drone operators, now known as remote pilots. Compared with the agency’s former Section 333 exemption requirement, the Part 107 rulemaking established a far less onerous process for becoming certified to commercially fly drones.
Under Section 333, if someone wanted to commercially fly a drone – e.g., make a profit from the operations or use it as part of his business – he had to file a lengthy application with the FAA and, among other requirements, obtain a pilot’s license.
Now, under Part 107, in order for someone to become a commercial drone operator, he must get a remote pilot airman certificate, which includes passing a TSA screening and a remote pilot exam at a testing center (or an online test for anyone who already has a pilot’s license).
So, what’s been happening over the last nine months? No, not every solar company has brought its own drone on-site or hired a third-party drone services company. And yes, as the FAA admitted, there are still plenty of obstacles to overcome in the commercial drone industry.
Nonetheless, if you want to bring unmanned aircraft into your solar business, there are certainly opportunities already out there – whether you want to show off your project by getting a bird’s-eye shot, survey a landfill for a potential project or slash the time it takes to manually inspect panels.
For Hannah Solar Government Services (HSGS), the technology has been proving itself for getting aerial footage of solar projects – from the pre-construction phase to the finished product – and surveying and measuring sites, including checking for any obstructions on a roof, says Emily Johnson, sales and marketing administrator for the Charleston, S.C.-based, veteran-owned solar installer.
“When you have a solar PV system that has so many solar panels, it’s hard – if not impossible – to take a traditional photo of the whole system,” she explains. “The drone allows you to go hundreds of meters up in the air to photograph the entire system.” In turn, it “puts the final product into perspective and makes it something tangible,” she says.
For Virginia Beach, Va.-based HAZON Solutions, which has been commercially operating drones for a couple of years (since the Section 333 era), the FAA’s new drone rulemaking played a role in the company’s newest venture, the HAZON Drone Capability Development program, which is targeted toward enterprise clients – including large utilities and renewable energy companies – that want to bring drones into their businesses.
“The 333 waivers were so difficult to come by and so cumbersome to get,” explains Ed Hine, director of drone capability development at HAZON. “But Part 107 has lowered that barrier of entry and really made it possible for any business – that can make the business case for it – to get into the drone space.”
The company also provides aerial inspection services for infrastructure such as transmission lines and bridges, but Hine says the growth of the renewables industry “presents a great use case for drone operations.”
“I think there’s no doubt about it that it’s provided all the more opportunity to go out and fly a drone,” he adds.
Bill Hanrahan, HAZON’s director of operations, notes, “It’s amazing how many solar farms are going up now.” In turn, he explains, companies are simply looking for a “reliable, cost-effective way to inspect them.” Particularly, Hanrahan says he finds the most work on the East Coast, especially in solar-rich Virginia and North Carolina.
Likewise, Washington, D.C.-headquartered Measure, a trademarked “Drone as a Service” provider, sees the growth of both the drone and renewables industries as a boon for the company.
“The combination of the Part 107 commercial drone rules and the growth of the renewables industry has increased the demand for drone solutions in the solar industry,” says Jesse Stepler, chief operating officer of Measure, which has also been commercially deploying unmanned aircraft for a few years. “As further regulations will enable the industry’s ability to perform energy inspections, we can only expect that uptick to continue.”
Although Part 107 laid vital groundwork in the quest toward widespread drone adoption, there are, indeed, more rules that need to be established before it can happen. For example, if someone wants to operate beyond the parameters of Part 107, he must apply for an additional waiver from the FAA, which, as of press time, has not issued one since January. These operations include flying beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) of the pilot, at night or over other people.
For solar, though, that doesn’t necessarily pose a big problem.
Gretchen West, co-executive director of the Commercial Drone Alliance, points out that the use case is already there for solar companies: For the most part, they wouldn’t need to fly over other people, considering the remote locations of large-scale projects, or fly BVLOS, considering a project wouldn’t stretch beyond what the pilot can see from the ground.
West brings up an interesting potential application, though: using a “swarm of drones for one operator.”
In this case, you’d need an additional waiver from the FAA to fly more than one drone at a time, but if you’re looking for an even faster way to inspect your project, “it’d be a good use case,” West says.
Meanwhile, the technology is still advancing – such as augmenting safety features and bringing more autonomy to an operation – and many solar companies are still exploring what exactly drones can offer, Hanrahan points out.
As companies “get more comfortable” using them, they’ll continue to realize the benefits of drones; then, “it’ll be the way to do [solar] inspections,” he says.
Likewise, Hine says many companies are still testing unmanned aircraft, running analyses and seeing if they can really “fold them into the mix and replace current practices with drone operations.”
“I think we’re about to enter into a phase where we’ll see mass adoption of those drone operations into the larger industries,” he adds.
Measure’s Stepler agrees: “Drones will inevitably be integrated into energy industry workflows. The real question is in what form.”
Both HAZON and Measure bring up what they call a “hybrid approach” to companies’ drone work: They conduct their own operations in-house and then call upon drone service providers for the more complex jobs.
Though there is “plenty of positive interest in the solar industry for drones and the value they bring,” Stepler claims, “most companies are new to the technology and do not necessarily have the ability to build and scale a drone program” – which is where turnkey drone solutions providers come in.
If you’re looking to incorporate drones into your solar business and want to do it yourself, West stresses the importance of understanding the rules of Part 107, which includes restrictions on where to fly (e.g., away from airports and many military facilities) and requirements for filing certain data with the FAA.
“Understand where and how you can operate,” she suggests, adding that this includes gaining a broad understanding of the technology itself and taking a look at what insurance is required. “That creates a safe environment for all of us,” she says.
After all, there still exist privacy, safety and security concerns for drones: “We’re seeing bad reports in the media about drones being used in reckless ways – and that’s not necessarily done by our commercial industry,” West says.
As HSGS’ Johnson emphasizes, safety is certainly key: “We will use the drone for any and every project we do – no matter the size, system type or location. However, we do take extra precautions to make our clients aware that we have a drone and the location is safe for a commercial drone to fly. That is probably the most important part.”
Joining the new age
Considering the technology’s ability to reduce time, cut costs and increase safety for workers, it’s easy to predict a not-so-distant future in which drones are ubiquitous with so many industries, including large enterprises like solar. But don’t ever count out the power of humans.
“At this point in time, the drone is just a tool,” West says. “It’s not replacing jobs when it comes to inspecting solar panels.”
“If there’s a problem, a human still needs to go and fix it,” she explains.
Meanwhile, pointing back to the FAA’s and SEIA’s statistics on the widening solar and drone industries, there are a lot of drones going up in the air, and there’s a lot of solar power joining the grid. With newfound opportunities to become a drone pilot or hire a drone pilot increasingly emerging, why not take a look at what the “new age of American aviation” can bring to your business?
Interested in learning more about drones? Attend the 2017 Northeast Drone Show, coming to Springfield, Mass., on June 26-28. More information can be found at droneshow.us.
In addition to serving as an associate editor at Solar Industry magazine, Betsy Lillian is editor of sister publication Unmanned Aerial Online (unmanned-aerial.com), covering commercial and civil drone news.