Optimizing Solar Farms of the Future with Drones

SunPower leverages DroneDeploy to map solar farms and manage a growing team of UAV operators around the world

SunPower - Silicon Valley

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When it comes to designing the layout for a utility-scale solar farm, the possibilities are endless. This is not an overstatement: a typical site has 10 to the 60th power potential plant configurations. (If you’re not sure how many this is, let’s just say it’s quite a bit more than a quadrillion.) The challenge for a project of this magnitude is to develop a land prospecting and design workflow that is efficient, and ultimately maximizes energy production with the best possible solar tracking array.

Solar industry giant SunPower combines drone maps with their proprietary software to streamline prospecting and design cycles. DroneDeploy helps the company’s growing drone program mobilize its international fleet of operators and deploy solar farms on a global scale.

Building a Drone Program to Support the Future of Solar Energy

Headquartered in Silicon Valley, SunPower is a global solar technology and innovation company and a leading provider of solar solutions for the residential, commercial, and power plant markets. The company provides high efficiency solar panels and power plant technology for large-scale solar developers around the world. As part of this process, SunPower offers site evaluation and layout design services.

To hear more about how SunPower leverages drone maps and 3D models, we spoke to Kingsley Chen, who is the chief drone operator for the company’s UAV program. Before taking his current position at SunPower, Kingsley focused on utility power plant performance optimization. He currently coordinates the company’s international drone program. He discussed the Gala Solar Power Plant, currently under construction on a 130-acre site outside of Bend, Oregon.

Kingsley Chen, UAV Operations Coordinator at SunPower, gathering topographical information in the field.

SunPower Streamlines Its Prospecting and Design Cycle with the Help of Drones

Location is paramount when planning a new solar farm, but finding the right property can prove challenging. With competitors vying for prime land, prospecting in the solar industry is fast paced. In many cases, solar design engineers have a relatively short time frame for gathering up-to-date topographical information on a property and designing specs for a solar farm.

To gather topographical information for a prospective site, solar design companies traditionally have two options: rely on publicly available data or conduct a new ground survey. Neither of these options is ideal for a large-scale solar project. Existing information is often out of date and only accurate within 10–20 feet. Conducting a new topographical survey is equally troublesome, because in the time it takes to survey a property of this size, a potential land opportunity can be lost.

By using drone maps instead, SunPower is able to gather real-time, accurate topographical data in a fraction of the time it would take to conduct a land survey. This change alone has made their prospecting and design cycle far more efficient and allowed the company to remain competitive in this fast-paced industry.

SunPower maintains an international team of drone operators.

SunPower Scales Drone Operation, Manages Remote International Team of Drone Operators

In order to make its rapid prospecting timeline work on a global scale, SunPower efficiently deploys a worldwide team of drone operators, which Kingsley trains and maintains.

DroneDeploy’s cloud-based platform allows Kingsley and his international team to manage their drone mapping workflow efficiently, remain agile and collaborative, and reduce the program’s need for in-house tech support.

When working with an international team of drone pilots, it’s paramount that we have a software solution that is able to scale with us as we grow.

Kingsley Chen picture Kingsley Chen, UAV Operations Coordinator, SunPower

DroneDeploy’s cloud-based platform allows Kingsley and his international team to manage their drone mapping workflow efficiently, remain agile and collaborative, and reduce the program’s need for in-house tech support.

Drone Data Pairs with Industry Software to Streamline the Design Process

After gathering initial site survey data, it’s time for SunPower’s engineers to get to work on design specs. This involves uploading the 3D point cloud generated in DroneDeploy to SunPower’s Oasis GEO software. Using this software, the engineering team integrates the drone data with potential solar farm layouts and compares energy production estimates for each layout.

Having a workflow to get your data out in a timely manner is key to success.

Kingsley Chen, UAV Operations Coordinator, SunPower

SunPower is able to quickly compare thousands of potential solar farm layouts and ultimately recommend the best possible layout to meet a site owner’s goals. Site owners can screen a large number of potential sites quickly, and in the end are assured that their project will be designed for maximum profitability.

Drone maps and models have revolutionized the way SunPower evaluates land and designs large-scale solar farms. The company not only incorporated drones into their everyday workflows, but they did so on a global scale.

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