Drones

Flying high: how drones are revolutionizing the solar industry

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Ten years ago, if you were installing a rooftop solar system, one of your installer’s first steps was to come to your house, climb up on your roof, and take a bunch of measurements and pictures to evaluate the project. However, this process is now starting to change with the rise of a new technology: drones. Drones in solar have a number of advantages that make them appealing to both homeowners and installers, including saving time and money for everyone involved. In this article, we’ll take a look at how drones are used in solar projects and explore some major companies on the cutting edge of this technology. 

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Key takeaways


  • Drones are changing the solar installation process by offering a safer, faster, and more reliable method for site surveys and inspections
  • Drone technology can be used in multiple ways in the solar industry, from residential to utility scale projects, and throughout the installation process, including surveys and inspections
  • Adding a drone program is a fairly simple process for installers, and drone software companies like Scanifly, Loveland Innovations, and Raptor Maps will help along the way
  • See what EnergySage installers are offering when you get quotes through the EnergySage Marketplace

How are drones used in solar?

Drones can be used in a few different ways throughout the solar industry. The main use cases can be broken down into two categories: residential projects and utility scale projects. 

Residential projects

For residential projects, one of the most common use cases for drones is in surveying and system design. As previously mentioned, the traditional method for a site survey is to have a surveyor physically climb onto the roof of your house, collect all the necessary measurements by hand, and sketch out the roof plan on a sheet of paper. However, there are three main issues with this approach: it’s dangerous for the installer, time consuming, and, at times, inaccurate. Drones offer the chance to improve on each of these three issues. 

With a drone survey, an installer will pilot the drone safely from the ground and fly it up and around the house, where it will take a series of pictures to construct a 3D computer model. Amazingly, the drone’s flight only takes about eight minutes, representing a 90 percent decrease in typical onsite time! The model will have near perfect measurements of the roof and will take into account key shading and azimuth (angular measurement) data, which will be used in your solar system’s design. It’s more accurate than other measurement techniques–like satellite and Lidar (light detection and ranging)–due to the close proximity of the camera to the house. Once the model is finished, engineers can work directly with it to design the system and financiers can use it to determine the price–all without needing to physically climb on the roof!

Drones can also be used in other steps in the residential solar installation process. For example, during installation, drone footage can assist installers by detecting safety hazards, monitoring worker progress for optimal productivity, and providing aerial imaging and terrain mapping.

Utility scale projects

With utility scale solar projects, drones can provide value in a few different ways. Unlike residential solar projects that often require rooftop surveys, utility scale solar projects are almost always ground based. Thus, while drones can be used in the monitoring of ongoing construction in utility scale solar projects, they won’t provide the same safety and accuracy benefits that they do in residential projects. Instead, it’s in the energy production monitoring of these vast solar projects that drones really come into their own. 

Utility scale solar projects are often spread out over large areas in harsh environments, and to check each panel for defects can take hours. With drones, pilots can cover the entire area in a fraction of the time, capture footage, and analyze thermal data for panel output anomalies. Energy production issues identified in check ups like these can result in thousands of dollars (and kilowatt-hours) saved. 

What are the major benefits of solar drone programs?

Using drones provides many benefits to both installers and homeowners. For installers, the reduced time for surveying and design translates into more projects and increased revenue; while a surveyor can typically complete one to two properties each day without a drone, this number can jump to as high as 11 to 12 properties with a drone, depending on the properties’ proximity to each other. Additionally, keeping surveyors off of roofs creates safer working conditions, which often lowers insurance costs. 

For the homeowner, the use of drones means both a faster and more accurate solar process, provided by the precision of 3D modeling. There’s also a lower risk of complications later in the process from unforeseen issues or miscommunication between surveyor and designer, as the drone footage will be available for everyone throughout the project. 

How can solar installers add a drone program?


If you’re an installer, adding a drone program to your company is relatively straightforward. The first step is to purchase the drone itself: some highly recommended models for solar use include the Mavic Pro 1, Mavic Pro 2, or the Phantom series–just make sure to check that your drone is compatible with the software system you intend to use. Next, you’ll need to identify who will be flying the drones, provide them with learning materials, and have them take a test to obtain a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Part 107 license–the commercial drone license required everywhere in the United States. You’ll then need to pay a five dollar fee to register each drone with the FAA, which is valid for three years. Finally, you’ll choose and purchase your 3D modeling software: all three of the software companies discussed below have comprehensive training programs to teach your company how to use both the software and the drone together to obtain the best results. 

Who are some major drone software companies?

There are a number of companies creating drone based software for specialized use in solar. Some are more targeted towards residential project use, while others focus on utility scale. 

Scanifly

Scanifly is a major player in the residential space, selling solar design software to create and facilitate 3D modeling based on property surveys. They also have a training system that helps installers get FAA certified, purchase drones, and learn their software, all with the goal of empowering installers to build their own drone programs. 

Loveland Innovations

Loveland Innovations offer similar services to Scanifly, with 3D modeling and analysis software for residential solar projects. The main difference between the two is that Loveland makes use of autopilot technology to fly the drones on a prearranged flight path, without the need for an expert pilot. 

Raptor Maps

Raptor Maps focuses more on utility scale solar, using machine learning technology to analyze thermal drone footage of large projects. This analysis then enables owners to pinpoint areas of concern as well as make data driven decisions to improve electricity output and keep costs competitive. 

Drones have a bright future in solar

Drones have an extremely promising future in the solar industry. On the residential side, they keep surveyors safely off the roof while enabling them to do their job quicker and more accurately. For utility scale solar projects, they enable companies to more efficiently monitor the state of their projects. As a result, drone technology is becoming increasingly preferred over traditional methods like hand measurements and SunEyes (handheld electronic tools), and even over more complex technology like Lidar. Expect to see more installers making use of drones throughout their solar installation process in the coming months and years!

Looking to install a solar system?

If you’re interested in installing a solar system on your property, be sure to check out the EnergySage Marketplace to compare quotes from multiple installers. Hoping to find an installer with a drone program? While many installers haven’t yet adopted this exciting new technology, if you’re excited about drones, simply make a note in your EnergySage profile–you could be the impetus for an installer adding a drone program!

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