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How drones are lowering the cost of clean energy
Here's a potential employment opportunity for licensed pilots:
How drones are lowering the cost of clean energy
Katie Fehrenbacher Thursday, March 15, 2018 - 2:00am
This drone designed by Latvian startup Aerones is could help de-ice
wind turbines and keep them free of bugs.
Hundreds of feet above a snow-covered field, a boxy black device
covered in propellers hovers next to the enormous outstretched blade
of a wind turbine. From a corner of the machine, a nozzle sprays a
liquid across the surface of the blade in a rapid smooth zigzag motion
like a rogue car wash in the sky.
The machine is a drone made by Latvian-born startup Aerones, and
earlier this year the company tested it out de-icing a wind turbine
blade at a wind farm in Latvia:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mP5L...ature=youtu.be . The
same unmanned aerial vehicle also can clean bugs and dirt off turbine
blades, the sides of buildings and solar panels.
Next week, Aerones' Latvian founders will stand before a room of
potential investors and the media to give a two-minute pitch
explaining their drone technology — as part of a gathering of the
latest cohort of Y Combinator companies. The company, which is testing
various applications for its powerful drones, recently was accepted
into the influential Silicon Valley program. It will spend the next
few months honing ideas and finding new customers with Y Combinator's
Aerones' wind turbine drone exemplifies a growing trend of drones
being built and deployed for renewable energy companies to carry out
tasks such as designing
new power plants, monitoring and inspecting hardware and power lines,
and (now) keeping renewable systems clean. The idea is that drones can
do these jobs much more quickly and for a lower cost than they can be
done by human workers.
Such computing technologies could help solar and wind development
companies lower their overall costs to produce energy and compete more
effectively with cheap fossil fuel-based energy options. The lower the
cost of clean energy, the more mainstream and accessible it'll be to
companies looking to buy it to power operations, offset their carbon
emissions or meet other corporate sustainability goals.
Both wind and solar operators are beginning to show some interest in
drones but in different ways.
According to a report
https://www.epri.com/#/pages/product...0003002006216/ from the
Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), solar developers are
evaluating drones as a better way to operate and maintain
utility-scale solar farms. These are the expansive solar panel fields
that can stretch for miles in remote regions of some states such as
California, Arizona and Nevada.
The cost of the solar energy is often low from these farms — in some
places cheaper than coal and natural gas power— but companies are
still trying to slash a couple cents per kilowatt hour off the costs.
If drones can help alert solar farm operators when some solar panels
aren't operating, or if electrical wiring is overheating, then they're
worth paying to do drone flyovers.
The idea is that drones can handle certain jobs, such as panel or
turbine maintenance, much more quickly and for a lower cost than they
can be done by human workers.
The EPRI report found that the "low hanging fruit" for drones and
utility-scale solar farms is infrared imaging. A drone equipped with
infrared sensors can peer down at panels and gear and encourage such
Other solar companies such as solar project developer and panel maker
SunPower are using drones to more effectively, efficiently and
inexpensively design new power plants. The company has deployed a
handful of drones that take surveys over undeveloped new utility-scale
solar fields and use the aerial imaging to design panel layouts with
the most efficient shapes.
Top of a turbine
In recent years wind turbines have gotten taller and wind blades and
rotors have gotten bigger. These factors have enabled wind farms to
produce the cheapest wind energy in history and compete with fossil
fuel energy in states such as Texas and Iowa.
But as these monster turbines reach farther up in the sky, there's
more reason to send a drone to the top to do inspections or change out
Michigan-based startup SkySpecs automates the turbine inspection
A startup called SkySpecs has developed drone technology that
automatically flies up to the high heights of wind turbine blades and
does an inspection in just 15 minutes. The company says that in
comparison to drone flights that are manually operated by a controller
on the ground, its drone flights are much quicker (and thus cheaper).
Investors seem to be interested. Earlier this year, the Ann Arbor,
Michigan-based startup raised $8 million in funding.
The wind turbine cleaning and de-icing drones from Aerones are a
little more unusual than the standard drones you see hovering over
Aerones co-founder Dainis Kruze said the unique design, increased
power of the system, stabilization algorithms and tilting propellers
enable his company's drones to reliably and steadily fly up to 1,000
feet off the ground while spraying liquids and lifting up to 440
The company's drones are connected to the ground via a power cable and
a cable for the liquids. Most drones are propelled by batteries (and
sometimes mini solar panels), but with a cable connection to a
generator on the ground, an Aerones' drone can fly indefinitely.
"You need a lot of power to do the cleaning smoothly and steadily,"
Kruze explained, adding that the drones "work differently than how
other drones operate."
Such a high-end drone isn't cheap. But Aerones plans to sell wind
turbine cleaning and de-icing as a service, instead of selling the
The wind industry is just one market for Aerone's high-tech drones.
Other applications include firefighting, rescue, delivery and sports
(such as drone wakeboarding).
Next week Kruze and co-founder Janis Putrams will take the stage at
the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, to try to
convince investors and members of the press that a drone that can
clean wind turbines (among other things) is a hot investment.
Of course, the drone will be in tow. Kruze said: "It looks amazing.
Just trust me. It's not like anything that you've seen before."
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