Updated: Jan 21
Thermography is the next frontier for professional drone pilots and entrepreneurs. The public safety sector has been using aerial thermography for decades, being an invaluable tool for emergency management, surveillance, and search & rescue. However, private companies and entrepreneurs are getting into the game and providing new infrared services such as roof leak detection, energy audits, and construction quality control. One of the leading commercial UAS infrared applications is solar panel inspections. With more and more people adding this to their list of UAS services, I wanted to give you my top 8 tips for any infrared inspection of solar panels.
Tip #1: Check Airspace, NOTAM, and TFR
Okay, this first one isn’t unique to thermal inspection, but it’s no less important. Always check your airspace and request ATC authorization if you need it. This should be done a week before the mission for planning purposes (no need to plan a mission if the president is in town) and the morning of the mission, as flight conditions may have changed. Several free services are available, but I use and teach in my classes Aloft.ai. Their free version allows you to check airspace, NOTAM, and TFRs. Plus, if you are in controlled airspace, you can request instant ATC authorization through the FAA’s LAANC system right through the app.
Tip #2: Read the IEC 62446 Standard
IEC 62446 is the industry-accepted standard governing the inspection of solar panels. Several critical environmental conditions must be met for your inspection to be reliable. For example, you need to have no more than 17.3mph of wind, 2 oktas of sky coverage, and at least 600W per square meter of irradiance. These standards are expensive but check out my article on “How to Get UAS Thermal Inspection Standards for Free” to save some money.
Tip #3: Make Sure you Have This Equipment
The thermal drone will be the most important piece of equipment you need, but there are several other things you can’t forget. First, you need to have a manometer (wind gauge) to measure and record your wind speed. Don’t feel you need to get the best on the market. A $35 gauge from Amazon is fine. You also will need an irradiance meter to verify you have at least 600W per square meter of solar energy on the panels. An irradiance meter is not the same as a light meter and can range from $100 to $400+. I don’t recommend getting the cheapest on the market as you may get questioned on how accurate the reading was. Both wind speed and irradiance are required to be recorded by IEC 62446.
Tip #4: Document Your Cloud Coverage
IEC 62446 requires no more than 2 oktas of sky covered by cumulus clouds. Most weather forecasts don’t give you cloud coverage in oktas, though. The one exception is the METAR. You may remember it from when you were preparing for the Part 107 knowledge exam. Take a look at my article titled “Why You Learned the METAR and TAF for the Part 107 Exam” for an easy tool to have the METAR messaged to you in plain text. Use that text to document the cloud coverage in your report.
Tip #5: Unlock your Geo-Zones
DJI is the largest manufacturer of commercial drones. To protect themselves, they have created a network of areas that prevent you from flying called “geo-zones.” Some geo-zones are hard “no’s” were you can’t ever fly. Washington DC is an example. Other areas, like prisons or state parks, can be unlocked if you contact them and provide documentation that you have the authority to fly there. Other areas are locked, but all anyone needs to do is log into their portal and request access. As I live in Clemson, there are six Saturdays (go Tigers!) every fall when I can’t take off from my front lawn without getting the area unlocked. Learn more on how to open a geo-zone on DJI’s website.
Tip #6: Make your Way-Point Assisted Mission in Your Office
You may manually fly the mission if you are doing a small array, such as a single-family house. However, for large solar farms, you’ll likely use a way-point-assisted app such as DroneDeploy or Pix4D Capture. Make those maps in your office. It’s air-conditioned there!!! Plus, you have reliable internet connectivity for updated maps. As a rule, anything I can do in my office before a mission I do. The heat of the field leads to errors (both human and equipment), and it is always easier to fix issues from your home base.
Tip #7: Plan Your Mission Ahead of Time
Before you go out to the field, bring the mission site up on google maps. Think through potential obstructions and hazards. Ask yourself, “what are the top 5 risks on this job, and how will I mitigate them?” Pay special attention to where you launch and land. Try to stay away from pedestrians as much as you can. Drones are cool, and people are going to want to come up and talk with you about them. That is time away from the mission and a potential distraction for the pilot. Be especially careful around dogs. Rover may get excited and get loose of the owner. Nothing good there! Also, try to stay away from traffic. I generally don’t worry so much about a collision, but more so from distracting drivers. Again, drones are cool, so people may be looking at the drone and not on the road.
Tip #8: Keep your Drone Clean
Infrared sensors are a pain to clean, and you can do real damage if you don’t do it right. The best thing you can do is to keep it from getting dirty in the first place. Don’t launch and land in dusty locations. Try to take off on clean concrete or asphalt. I’ve used the topper of my truck as a last resort. Also, always keep the lid on your drone case closed. Open it, get the drone out, and then close it up. No need to have dust blown in and then put your clean drone back in a dirty case.
Again, UAS thermography is where the industry is going. Make sure that if you get into this aspect of the business, you get your Level 1 UAS Thermography certification. These tips and the Level 1 certification are just the tips of the iceberg of what is included in our Applied UAS Thermography Course. Learn more about the class now!