For all five taking part in this AlteX Flight School, it was amazing:
The incredible, satisfying feeling of flying a drone for the first time and realizing its potential as a professional tool.
“Not one of us had ever flown a drone before,” says Conrad Schonwandt, a solar technician with Ontario’s Northland Power. “All I’d ever tried was a $50 one you play with around the house. Our team hasn’t really flown a (real) drone before so we were all really nervous about what to expect.”
“We’re really confident. For me, it was the moment I saw how well the drone can oversee the site. This gave me a very good reassurance that this project will work out well for us, he says.”
AlteX provided both an intensive Online Ground School via live online classroom, plus a recent two-day Flight School on Northland Power’s Crosby solar site. The company wanted to learn how to safely and efficiently use UAV to inspect hundreds of thousands of solar panels - a task that has, until now, involved a staggering amount of manual labor.
“Previous inspections were carried out by ground with a hand-held IR (Infrared) camera,” explains Conrad. “We would either walk the grounds in uneven areas, or with an ATV and a driver while the passenger scanned the modules.”
The Crosby Site alone has 45,000 panels spread over 100 acres; Northland Power has 12 other similar sites (which together provide power for 26,000 homes). Imagine scanning all that by hand. The value proposition was clear: Drones would be able to do this more effectively and efficiently. It was just a matter of finding the best instruction - with a solution tailored to Northland’s specific needs.
“We didn’t know anything going into this,” says Conrad. “We (just) wanted to make sure that we were properly trained to adhere to all laws and safety regulations required to fly drones.”
In fact, two of their sites are adjacent to small airbases. Northland Power wasn’t even certain they’d be able to fly drones in those areas. AlteX, which had been recommended by another company as a trainer, had the answers.
“Now we know we’re able to - it’s just a question of the right paperwork,” says Conrad.
That’s a very specific, highly useful piece of knowledge for Northland Power. And it’s due, at least in part, because AlteX Operations Director Yifei Zhao and Technical Director Alex Shvartsev ensured the training was tailored to the company’s needs. Part One was a live and intensive online course - covering everything from the potential and limitations of drones, Canadian airspace and air law, meteorology, navigation, radio communications - right through to applying all this theoretical knowledge to practical operations. Part Two was learning how to fly - on site.
“They were really good,” says Conrad. “Yifei concentrated on all of the procedures and processes and safety aspects, and Alex was more the pilot – showing us how to do the automated flight systems (a pattern or grid that can be pre-programmed for each solar farm).“As a team, they were really complementary.”
Learning the ropes at the Crosby Site meant Conrad and his colleagues immediately saw how they’d integrate UAV into the massive annual job of inspecting each and every solar panel. The goal? To identify “Hotspots” or other thermal anomalies that could indicate a malfunctioning panel, a broken wire, or other problems that need fixing. When done by hand, this process generally takes a minimum of several days for each of Northland Power's 13 solar sites. If the weather doesn’t cooperate (the panels need to be pumping out at least 60% of their rated power while being scanned), it can take as long as Two Weeks.
"Now, the balance of power has shifted - and using UAV will “drastically” save time", says Conrad. “I’m hoping we could have a site scanned in at most, three hours.”
What’s more, Alex showed the team how to program the UAV software to fly a repeatable grid pattern - meaning simple, automated flights.
“With the ability to now set automated flight paths, we can create these paths – save them – and use them year after year to scan our sites,” says Conrad. “Other advances (included) setting up virtual fences and No Fly Zones. This will help us make sure the drone does not leave our property line.”
Instructing on site, says AlteX, brings specific advantages.
“We don't often run flight training on client sites,” says Operations Director Yifei. "This on-site training with Northland Power really helped the team to see how UAV works for their job environment. It's much more visual and informative.”
It was also, she says, great for AlteX.
“We definitely enjoy training on client sites with a real operational environment. This was a very valuable experience - both for us and the client."
Though the students practiced with an AlteX DJI Phantom 4 Professional, they will ultimately use an industrial drone DJI Matrice 210, which is outfitted with both a 30X optical camera and an infrared camera for detecting those "Hotspots". All the knowledge, the programming, the compliant skills are completely transferable between the two machines. Conrad has nothing but praise for the course, and its instructors. He can already see how advantageous this will be for Northland Power.
They were extremely knowledgeable,” he concludes. “They knew exactly what I needed. Yifei is also always up-to-date on any new changes with Transport Canada and is constantly updating us, which is great.”
Already, the company is looking ahead to other areas in which UAV might be put to use. Conrad has been asked about using drones to inspect the inside of boilers (a very doable task for specific models of UAV) and more.
“We’re thinking of using them to inspect our overhead lines (also a task that used to be done with a handheld IR camera)." “Sometimes they’re a kilometer long. You just want to scan the hydro line or insulators to see if there are any Hotspots."
That, however, is down the road. For the moment, the team is eager to start putting their new skills and UAV into action.