The Drone Wars: How Commercial Drones are Revolutionizing Energy Industries and Environmental Efforts
Technological innovation has been one of the hallmarks of humanity, with the creation of tools designed to solve our problems being one of the most significant traits that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. But the cause-and-effect process of technology is not always direct in that manner, rather sometimes new technology is developed and then only later is it realized how useful these new tools can be in certain situations.
The advent of drones for civilian use is an example of just such a technology. A drone is defined as an unmanned aircraft, either remotely controlled or autonomous, that is more or less a flying robot. Initially, drones were developed as replacements for military aircraft to carry out missions deemed too dull, dirty, or dangerous to send planes with humans aboard. Today, however, you can walk into pretty much any tech store and see personal miniature drones for sale designed for aerial photography, competitive drone racing, or simply to be toys.
However as drones have gotten cheaper and more ubiquitous, new uses for the technology are being found left and right across all sorts of industries. The energy industry is no exception, as drones have begun to pop up in aid of energy production companies, as well as a means for other industries to save energy and/or reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions or assist in other environmental matters. Keep reading for a dive into some of the more prominent ways in which drones are making waves in the world of energy.
Utilities and energy production companies have found applications for drone technology that greatly improve their operations, to the point that “the addressable market of drone-powered solutions in the world’s power and utility sector is worth $9.46 billion.” The main benefit of drones in energy production is the ability to complete tasks involved in the installation, operation, and management of equipment in a manner that reduces human laborers needed to be trained in and to complete high-risk activities, saves valuable resources in time and money, and does so with minimal fuel costs and environmental impact. Pretty much across any energy source imaginable, drones are already creating a positive impact.
Rooftop solar power
Drones are innovative for the solar power industry for their ability to get a bird’s-eye view of rooftops without anyone having to step foot on a roof. The concept of surveying a building’s roof without sending any workers up a ladder is revolutionary for the rooftop solar industry because only about half of the costs of installing residential or commercial solar systems are made up from the installed equipment itself.
The remaining costs, known as the soft costs, are for the time and labor resources to, among other things, inspect and evaluate rooftops to determine if a solar system is suitable and to design a customized solar system for each rooftop in such a way that the panels are arranged for optimal efficiency and productivity. These pre-installation and design aspects of the rooftop solar process are where drones have proved especially useful, as the required tasks can be completed much more quickly and inexpensively while reducing the inherent risks associated with workers unnecessarily being on the roof.
Before drones were widely and affordably available, the cutting edge solar installers would attempt to accomplish these tasks remotely utilizing satellite images of rooftops, but those images are often outdated and never include the level of detail that drones can provide. Not only that, but commercial drone providers have continued to push the envelope and simple photographic drones have been expanded to also include software that has 3D capabilities to allow an automatic and complete computer model of any rooftop, as well as thermal imaging technology that allows solar installers to identify the hot spots on a roof for optimal solar panel placement.
In the end, the time required for pre-installation assessment for residential solar systems can be cut in half while commercial assessments can drop from requiring days to just minutes once drones are used.
Even after the panels have been installed, drones enable solar companies to quickly and easily monitor the surface temperature of the panels to ensure they are operating as efficiently as possible, perform safe and efficient post-installation inspections to confirm equipment is functioning properly, and complete routine maintenance checks, all in a manner that reduces required labor (and labor training) which in turn saves both the installer and the customer money. Once a solar company owns and operates drones, the use of a single drone comes at such a low additional cost that they can be deployed in a flexible and as-needed basis, often performing a variety of tasks independently and concurrently.
Many of the advantages that the use of drones offer to rooftop solar installers also apply to large-scale utility companies and their solar power plants. In these large-scale solar generation facilities, drones have been deployed to greatly reduce the time it takes to conduct routine inspections of solar equipment from weeks to just hours. Because the solar plants of this scale are so much larger than rooftop solar, regular inspection costs are much higher and thus the opportunities for savings from drones are that much greater.
In addition to reducing the time and expense of these regular inspections, the drones are able to collect data from their maintenance inspections much more thoroughly, efficiently, and accurately before sending the data instantly to be analyzed by the solar manager. This system of evaluation allows large solar plants to identify equipment failures and other problems earlier, sometimes even before they become a problem in the first place, using the same type of thermal and visual measurements as discussed for rooftop solar. By catching problems earlier, solar farms are able to operate more productively as a whole, constantly maximizing their power output compared with what they would have been producing if they had to do all inspections manually.
Additionally, any new utility-scale solar plants are now able to use drones as a means to inexpensively conduct the necessary land assessments, cutting the time needed for such assessments up to 90%. Using drones to collect this data allows the resultant solar arrays to be designed more efficiently and ultimately use less land and fewer resources, minimizing the overall environmental impact. A SunPower executive likens the surveying of land and determining the optimal placement of panels and arrays to a big Tetris puzzle, something that is instantly more accessible when you have drones giving a view from hundreds of feet instead of surveying that Tetris board by foot.
Large wind energy plants find their benefits from drones in a similar manner to solar plants, allowing for much quicker, cheaper, and efficient inspection and maintenance of wind turbines. Drones can even be more critical to the wind energy sector, though, because the risk of sending workers hundreds of feet high to inspect wind turbines is significantly greater than going to a rooftop to inspect solar panels.
Additionally, the inspections performed by drones tend to be more accurate and thorough than human inspections, as oftentimes those workers sent to the top of a wind turbine are simply taking cell phone pictures of the damage and other issues they are able to identify, while wind turbine inspection drones are able to do full checks of blade health as the equipment ages and assess how that might affect power output.
Even where drones might suffer weaknesses, like pilot fatigue or the difficulty a human operator might have piloting a drone in the wake of spinning turbine blades, the advent of technology is right there with answers. Increasingly, drone use in the inspection of wind turbines are becoming autonomous, using algorithms to find the quickest pathways during its inspection, making decisions on its own, and sending pictures and data back to the control centers in a way that allows for quick and automatic analysis (thus removing another potential source of human fatigue or error).
The nuclear power industry has also received similar benefits from the drone industry, with the technology helping to improve the speed, accuracy, and cost-effectiveness of the required routine maintenance. The regular checkups of nuclear facilities are even more critical than other energy sources because identifying equipment degradation or failure before anything goes awry is of the utmost importance when dealing with nuclear materials. The care required in the nuclear industry have also afforded additional opportunities for drones, such as the use of a piloted drone to take measurements of radioactivity during the dismantling of a retired nuclear plant.
Where drones in the nuclear industry receive more attention than in other energy production fields is with regard to regulations. Just like with the advent of the Internet, drones represent an instance where laws and regulations have been unable to keep up with the quickly changing and evolving technology. As a result, commercial enterprises using drones for the power sector often have to contend with patchwork regulations across different states and various government agencies, naturally leading to confusion.
This need to play catch up with drone regulations is especially important in the nuclear industry, where there is much at stake and unnerving incidents have already occurred, such as in 2014 when unidentified drones breached the restricted airspace over 13 of France’s 19 nuclear plants. Just this past December, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) singled out seven different nuclear power plants across the United States for newly restricted airspace rules with regard to drones, setting the airspace within 400 feet around them as off limits to drones.
The threat to nuclear plants includes not only the concern that drones could be used to conduct surveillance on the security of the nuclear facilities, but as drones become larger and stronger there is also the threat of a drone dropping a dangerous payload directly over a nuclear plant. Nuclear power has much to gain from the proper use of commercial drones, but the sector will also surely be at the forefront of regulatory standards when it comes to using drones in the power industry.
Renewable and clean energy sources are not the only ones benefiting from drone technology. Coal mining companies are also using drones to capture data from mine sites quickly, safely, and affordably, such as surveying and calculating stockpiles, mapping pile locations, and determining slope stability. In doing so, drones providing the same time- and money-saving benefits to coal as seen by the previously discussed energy sources.
The oil industry, however, is the one that was at the forefront of breaking drones into the energy space. The first authorization from the FAA for a commercial operated drone in the United States was granted to BP to use a radio controlled drone to assist with operations at an oil field in Alaska. Oil and gas companies have likewise realized the benefits of utilizing drones to conduct monitoring and inspections that previously required workers, for both onshore and offshore drilling operations as well as refineries.
Conducting these analyses without the need to dangle workers over rope and wire in a more dangerous and resource-heavy process has allowed oil and gas companies to cut the costs of inspections by up to 85%. Additionally, drones are increasingly being used for activities related to oil transportation (checking pipeline integrity), prospecting and exploration (evaluating potential sites for signs they are worth further investigation), and extraction (the continued operation inspections and maintenance required by drilling rigs).
Further drones can assist in all of these activities while withstanding severe conditions, such as high temperatures, hard-to-breathe atmosphere, and generally risky conditions, that would be impossible with humans, while being inherently more accurate and analyzing the data on the fly. The effect of drones on increasing the safety and decreasing the resources needed in the oil and gas industries might be the most widely and noticeably felt, as those factors are significant enough to have an appreciable bottom line effect on oil prices, prices that drive the profitability of most other industries.
Energy savings in the delivery industry
Outside of the direct energy production industry, commercial drones looks poised to reduce energy use by companies in the business of deliveries. Studies have shown that, in certain situations, overall energy use and associated carbon emissions can be notably reduced if specific types of goods are delivered by drones rather than by trucks. While drones would not replace the shipment of products across the world, country, or even state, analysis of emissions in the delivery industry shows that the last mile of delivery, from hub to household, contributes a very significant amount to the carbon footprint of a delivery.
A study recently published in Nature found that within 2.5 miles of delivery for packages weighing 1.1 pounds or less, drones conclusively reduce the overall energy use per package and energy use per mile. And while these savings on energy and emissions are terrific, companies and consumers alike would be thrilled to know that using drones for this last part of the delivery also ends up being quicker door-to-door. Unsurprisingly, Amazon has notably been at the forefront of using drones for deliveries, making its first delivery by ‘Prime Air’ on December 2016, delivering popcorn and a streaming device to a customer in the United Kingdom in just 13 minutes.
The switch-over to using drones for deliveries does currently come with downsides though, such as the need for additional warehouse staff to manage the drones, the limited battery life and thus limited flying range, and the limits on the weight of package they can carry. Even if larger drones were used to carry larger packages a further distance, doing so would shift the math and tip the scales towards using more energy and emitting more CO2 than using delivery trucks.
Also, part of the energy-related allure of using drones is their ability to be plugged into the electrical grid for charging rather than using dirty diesel fuel. However, as is sometimes the case with electric cars, there are regions and situations where the local electrical grid is powered by emissions-heavy coal and thus using electricity for drones instead of gasoline for delivery trucks can actually end up being more harmful to the climate. Additionally, the equation comparing energy use of drones to delivery trucks will also change as delivery companies increasingly adopt biodiesel and/or electric-powered delivery trucks.
The other potential limiting factors to where drone delivery can save energy are the strict air restrictions in certain areas with regards to drones. As long as I live in Washington, D.C., I can be sure that having my new iPhone delivered by drone will be problematic due to the highly restricted airspace surrounding the White House and the Capitol. In general, drones need to steer clear of any risk (even just a perceived one) to existing air space and air travel to prevent incidents like the one where a drone collided with an army helicopter in New York City.
The Chief Executive of Aerotas, consultant to companies who use drones, notes that “the safety of air travel is a big issue that no one will want to compromise. Even Amazon, with all its money and lobbying, will find it hard to change that.”
A company like Amazon will not be deterred, though, as they have even filed for patents for a plan where drones would be located in a ‘beehive’ within a city center that would allow them to refuel much closer to their likely delivery destinations, eliminating the need to return further to the Amazon warehouses that are often on the outskirts of cities. This beehive system of drones would allow quicker delivery, reduce the number of drones flying at pedestrian level, and curb the overall energy use of the drones. We can also be assured that this futuristic sounding idea is only the tip of the iceberg of what technology disrupting companies will come up with to utilize drones in minimizing shipping costs, energy requirements, and climate impact.
Environmental research and management
The advantage of drones is really in the ability to get a bird’s-eye view of a vast landscape in a way that was not available previously in a cheap and quick manner. This ability presents unique opportunities in the areas of environmental research and management to those uses who are clever enough to translate that ability into savings of time and resources.
In Finland, drones have been deployed to monitor the storage of biomass. Storing biomass material until economically optimal timing for its use is a critical and standard aspect of the biomass industry, but doing so leads to issues like CO2 and other greenhouse gases leaking out and escaping into the atmosphere. Using drones, the biomass storage facilities are able to take periodic ambient air samples to determine if there are increases in greenhouse gases in the area around the storage and address those leaks immediately.
Monitoring sea ice
A readily available climate-related application of drones is to allow scientists the ability to monitor the level of sea ice in the arctic, a key measure in evaluating the effects of climate change. A more interesting way drones have been implemented in the arctic monitoring sea ice has been by the area’s native sustenance hunters. As climate change causes shorter winters and shrinking sea ice, native Alaskans are finding it more treacherous to go out on hunting expeditions for walruses and seals, essential foods for these populations.
Each season, more and more patches of ice are becoming thin and unreliable, so these sustenance hunters have taken to deploying drones armed with cameras ahead of any hunting expeditions to identify these dangerous patches (visible due to their white color instead of the more solid blue ice) and plot out a course for hunting that maximizes time spent actually hunting instead of feeling out the safest course.
In Oslo, Norway, the fjords are as symbolically representative of the city as cable cars are to San Francisco or the gondolas to Venice. Sadly, the fjords have developed an unfortunate litter problem across their waters. This trash in the fjords had become unbearable to citizens and environmentalists alike, until the Oslo Port Authority approved the use of drones to aid in trash removal. The remotely controlled drones are used to scan over the fjords in order to identify the pockets of trash so divers can then easily and quickly be deployed to remove the environmental hazards.
When environmental disaster strikes, whether caused by man or nature, drones have proven to be extremely useful in recent years. When a natural disaster ravages a region’s electrical grid, drones assist cleanup crews and the utilities in assessing the damage and helping to quickly and inexpensively survey the scope of repairs that are needed. This type of drone application was at full force in the wake of Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
As the city of Houston began the cleanup, drones were used to evaluate the massive damages to the transmission and distribution systems of the city, not to mention the oil transportation and refining infrastructure. Through these means, cleanup was able to begin more quickly in the areas that were the most affected. The same type of work can also be completed by teams with drones in the wake of environmental disasters such as spills of oil or coal ash, with environmental advocates even using drones to survey and report violations of energy companies.
What does the future hold?
Drones in the energy industry and peripheral energy fields have blown up in the past decade, but the coming years will surely prove to be even more exciting. First, one of the limiting factors of drones previously discussed was the limited battery life and thus short flight range. However great strides are already being made towards drones that can be completely powered mid-flight by renewable energy, either powered by the sun or by the wind as they fly, which are definitive game changers.
Also, if we expand the scope from just aerial drones to also include unmanned and automated or remotely controlled vehicles by land and by sea, then we’re already seeing oil and gas companies using these vehicles to monitor equipment for offshore drilling at depths unreachable by humans, deliveries expanding to autonomous ground vehicles, or even submarine drones being utilized to create oceanic kelp farms for carbon-neutral fuel.
Each different type of drone and potential application comes with its own unique set of benefits and challenges. In the end, though, the real story is how drones have unimaginable possibilities to revolutionize energy industries by completing tasks faster, cheaper, and more safely than humans ever could, or even performing functions that could never have been dreamed of in the first place without drone technology.
Sources and additional reading