Energy

With regulations in place, solar sector will look to use drones to improve productivity

Ensuring safe usage of drones is essential for fully exploiting their potential in renewable sector

By Priya Sreenivasan
Last Updated: Thursday 20 September 2018
Drones in solar industry
Credit: Skylark Drones Credit: Skylark Drones

This August, the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) passed the long awaited rules on operating unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) three years after an initial ban on all drones in October 2014. This could go a long way in propelling the growth of drone-based service industry that has mushroomed over the last couple of years in various infrastructure segments, including renewable energy.

The drones are now helping solar developers meet tight deadlines with economical solutions. Short timeframe for constructing solar plants under the National Solar Mission pushed some of the developers to reach out to commercial drone operators in the first–half of 2017 to undertake site mapping. The process becomes ten times faster than traditional surveying undertaken manually. The market for drones gradually expanded to include them for construction oversight, and operations and maintenance of both solar and wind plants.

For instance, a drone equipped with a camera on a pre-set flight path over a solar plant can indicate to the ground crew which modules have accumulated dust on the surface, thereby enabling focused cleaning operations to prevent a drop in output. A drone, equipped with a thermo-imaging camera, helps in pre-emptive maintenance by identifying hot spots that affect panel output.

The process is more cost-effective and favours economy of scale. “With very large plants, the cost of inspection by drones can be as low as half of what is incurred if done manually,” says Aatish Vanigota, co-founder of the Mumbai-based drone services company Pigeon Innovative Solutions. “And drones are faster. We can cover more than 2 square kilometres in a day, as opposed to five days if we do a manual survey.”

“The Indian market has evolved. It is developing additional native solutions for enabling drone to conduct hydrology study to prevent structural damage created by unexpected seasonal rivulets and drainage systems created by the onset of monsoons,” says Gokul Kumaravelu from Skylark Drones, a Bengaluru-based drone services company. “Shadow analysis of rooftops, a mature offering in the drone segment, helps minimise the effect of shading on the panels.”

Regulations provide clarity to a hitherto-uncharted territory

The new regulations on operating drones are a positive step towards structuring and classifying drones used commercially. Under the regulations, all UAVs weighing above 250 gm (which would be the case for all commercial drones) need to be registered and issued unique identification numbers that link the device to the individual owner or corporation. Additionally, drones flying above 200 metres in uncontrolled airspaces require permits from the DGCA. The pilots need to be provided mandatory training and certified by organisations recognised by the aviation ministry. “Existing training institutes like ours are already in line with the regulations,” says Lieutenant Commander John Livingstone (Retd), executive director of the Indian Institute of Drones. “We have trained 650 pilots and are present around the country, with sufficient capacity to deliver as per the requirements mandated by the new regulations,” says Livingstone.

All registrations and permit approvals are to be done electronically through the Digital Sky Platform from December 2018 onwards, with the expectation that the process will be quick and efficient.

As drone technology becomes more sophisticated, enhancing the quality and quantity of data they acquire, security and privacy risks may emerge. Hence, the regulations need to evolve over a period of time.

Growth potential of drones in renewable sector

Whatever be the cautionary undertone, the usage of drones appears inevitable with a major potential for market growth—a sentiment echoed by Jayant Sinha, Union Minister of State for Civil Aviation, who was quoted in PTI saying, “Research reports estimate that the drone-driven market globally will soon be more than $10 billion. In India, various experts estimate that market opportunities could soon exceed hundreds of billions of rupees."

India is already the sixth largest solar market and poised to keep growing.  The ambitious 60GW target for large-scale solar is propelling the market to be one of the largest in the world. The ambient conditions, especially in areas where the ultra mega solar parks are located, are marked with high dust levels and maintenance requirements. Quick turnover time for completing the projects calls for efficient pre-construction surveying as well as close monitoring of the construction process, especially because most of the sites are located in remote areas. All things considered, the drone services business is here to stay and expected to grow in tandem with the renewable sector.

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