The significant savings that can be made by utilizing drone technology for inspections have been highlighted at a major energy conference,
writes Kelvin Ross

The World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi last month heard how using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) was achieving savings in all sectors of the energy industry, from conventional power to renewables.

Riaan Meyer, managing director of UAV firm GeoSun Africa, cited the example of an 85 MW solar plant in South Africa. The owner deployed an inspection using hand-held cameras to find faults over a period of several months. They found four module defects. A drone took three days and found 200.

In another example, he said that another solar farm was losing $60,000 a year because of disconnections. For the price of a $15,000 drone inspection, it stopped those loss-making defects.

Johan Mlouka of Swiss drone company Flyability said that using a drone at a combined-cycle power plant had made fast savings because $12,000 did not need to be spent on erecting scaffolding for a human crew to climb. “The biggest value is the increased safety for workers,” he said. “How do you put a price tag on a life?”

So what are the challenges for those offering and those using UAV technology?

“The challenge is that you need to commit resources,” says Mlouka. “Not only financial for the capital expenditure, but you need to have skilled people – it’s not just a plug-and-play technology. You need a pilot that is skilled enough to get the most out of the flight time.”

And he adds that “drones are like tools, so you need different drones for different jobs: confined spaces, critical infrastructure”.

Meyer says that transporting drones can be a challenge: “Some airlines have not let a drone on a flight because of the battery.”

Permits to fly are also an issue, he explains. “In Australia, to fly a drone you need the same permits as to fly an aircraft. In South Africa, it takes two years to get a permit to fly a commercial drone and it’s just as hard in some other countries.”

He also explains that flying UAVs is “weather permitting: drones don’t like wind. Sometimes you have to wait days to inspect – and this can make it hard for wind farm inspections.”

Johann adds that another challenge is the data management, “because there can be so much of it”.

However it is this data that makes drones such an attractive option. Wei Yik Lee, co-founder of Advanced Vision Analytics Asia, says that “the value of the drone signals a new era – and that era is data. That data comes from images and what you can do with that data is boundless. Predictive maintenance will be possible in the future with a drone.”

Meyer agrees: “The sensors that can be connected to a drone will open up so many doors, you are going to be blown away.” He says that already companies using drone inspections are considering using the service every few months instead of annually because it is so much quicker than traditional methods.

“That would yield a dynamic volume of data.”