Renewable Energy

iSolara Improves Solar Design Workflow and Expedites Sales Process with Drone Maps

April 27, 2017

Business is booming for iSolara, an Ottawa-based solar power design and installation company. Thanks to a government-sponsored tariff program, businesses, especially energy heavy farms in rural Ontario, are reaping the benefits of solar roof panels. But the design proposal process can take weeks to complete. iSolara is using 3D mapping software to streamline their proposal process, improve collaboration and reduce their design cycle by nearly 70%.

Albert De Sousa is iSolara’s operation’s manager
Albert De Sousa is iSolara’s operation’s manager

iSolara was launched in 2003 by engineer Warren Abar, with the belief that wide-scale adoption of solar energy is the best way to address climate change. The company is now the largest installer of net metered solar systems in Eastern Ontario, helping businesses find solar solutions that allow them to store their excess energy for later use. After trying their hand with other drones and software over the past few years, iSolara purchased a Phantom 4 last spring and began using DroneDeploy to help visualize, measure and design their largest projects.

Albert De Sousa is iSolara’s operation’s manager. He has fifteen years of project management experience and has been with the company since 2009. His current role includes project management, client and supplier coordination and of course, planning and executing drone flights. He shared a recent project in which DroneDeploy’s 3D mapping software helped the company provide better solar roof panel designs with a faster turnaround.

Orthomosaic map of calf barn prior to installation of solar roof panels.
Orthomosaic map of calf barn prior to installation of solar roof panels.

3D Mapping Software Replaces Satellite Imagery and Streamlines Design Workflow

Many of iSolara’s clients are farmers, ideal customers because they typically have high energy costs, combined with many outbuildings that can be fitted with solar panels. At the beginning of this year, the company began a project to design and install roof panels on a farmer’s calf barn. Thinking ahead, the farmer built the south-facing barn ten years ago with solar in mind. Recently, he requested a design proposal from iSolara.

To generate a solid proposal, the iSolara team must design a configuration of the solar panels in a given space and also estimate the amount of energy those panels will be able to harvest. In the past, this process generally took about two hours per building and was a dangerous process requiring workers to scale rooftops to make measurements needed to calculate an estimate. Afterward, the design team would set to work creating site plans and, using an in-house tool, generate an energy harvest estimate.

Whenever possible, the team would overlay plans onto existing satellite imagery to help visualize the designs. But in many rural locations, satellite images are often several years out of date and low quality.

With or without satellite imagery, the process still involves many moving parts. With designers, engineers and subcontractors all weighing in, the back and forth could take weeks and several rounds of designs.

The sales process was painful. I realized there had to be a better way.

- Albert De Sousa, Operation’s Manager, iSolara

Now, with projects like this cattle barn, a process that once began on a rooftop with a measuring tape, now begins with Albert firing up his Phantom 4.

Albert took 100 orbital images of the calf barn at a height of 100 meters
Albert took 100 orbital images of the calf barn at a height of 100 meters

Drone-Generated 3D Models Improve Collaboration, Speed Up Design Cycle by 70%

For this calf barn, Albert took 100 images at a height of 100 meters. He processed the images in DroneDeploy to create a high-resolution orthomosaic map and 3D model. Thanks to DroneDeploy’s built-in measurement tools, initial rooftop measurements can now be taken with the click of a button, saving several hours of hand measuring right from the outset. Albert notes that this also makes for a safer process, as it reduces the amount of time spent on the roof.

After taking initial measurements, the detailed 3D-point cloud is exported from DroneDeploy and integrated into 3D Aurora, where the design team gets to work. They use the 3D models to complete shade designs and radiation maps right on top of the model, sharing and modifying the designs quickly and easily. “Now we can design directly from the images, says Albert. “We have the tools to simulate the roofs in a fraction of the time,” says Albert.

With better imagery and a 3D model that can easily be manipulated as part of a team collaboration, the entire design process for this calf barn was reduced from about ten man hours to just under three hours, representing a time savings of 70%.

In addition to the man hours iSolara saved by using 3D mapping software, Albert points out that using a drone-generated 3D model during the design process greatly improved collaboration. A process that once took several weeks of back and forth now takes just a few days.

With drones we save weeks on the turnaround time from initial design to deployable design.

- Albert De Sousa

3D model of calf barn.
3D model of calf barn.

Design proposal simulating solar roof panel placement, generated using 3D mapping software
Design proposal simulating solar roof panel placement, generated using 3D mapping software

3D Mapping Increases the Impact of Sales Proposals

Not only was iSolara able to speed up the design process on this project, but opportunities for increased team collaboration made for an overall better-quality proposal. “The collaboration aspect of it is pretty amazing,” says Albert. “We can design directly from the images. This is not only a time savings but a better quality because it allows for collaboration.”

The availability of aerial mapping imagery is a value-added for installation contractors and project owners as well. Albert says that contractors appreciate understanding a project’s components, location and complexity prior to going to the site. In some instances, this even reduces extra site visits from the schedule.

And finally, the presence of high-resolution imagery increases the impact of iSolara’s proposals, which, at the end of the day, helps win customers. Says Albert, “We want to show people that solar is beautiful as well as an asset, that it is designed for longevity.” The 3D models they create using DroneDeploy are helping to do just that.

Where to Learn More

Albert mentioned how 3D mapping software increases safety by reducing the need to take rooftop measurements. Read our recent post to find out about other ways drones are increasing jobsite safety. To learn more about some of the tools discussed here, make sure to consult our support documentation, including:

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