renewable energy drones wind farm

Investors bet on drones in renewable energy

The chatter as of late has been using drones for agricultural, and for drone delivery. But investors are now turning an increased amount of attention on drones in renewable energy.

Aerial data analytics company DroneBase this month announced it raised $7.5 million in Series C funding, intending to use the money to expand its services to the renewable energy market. And among one of DroneBase’s investors: Chinese drone maker giant DJI.

Data gathered via drone with DroneBase tech can be used to generate a Wind Turbine Report.

The money will largely support a new product called DroneBase Insights for Wind and Solar. That product is intended to service renewable energy companies by allowing them to use drones to inspect the components of wind turbines.

The machine learning algorithm is able to quickly pre-screen high-definition imagery of blades — differentiating between areas with and without damage — so the operator can easily focus attention on potential issues.

The product also leverages FLIR thermal cameras, which are mounted on drones to detect anomalies such as hot spots and defects on solar panels. That enables drones to gather data and find problems that would not be visible to the naked eye.

DroneBase says the product allows renewable energy companies to minimize downtime and maximize energy production (aka save money), while keeping people out of harm’s way.

In the renewable energy industry, drones have primarily worked as flying, robotic inspectors and data scouts. They fly over solar panels, scanning for issues, and they fly around wind turbines, seeking out damage.

A study by BNEF, Bloomberg’s primary research service focused on clean energy, calculated that the use of drones on offshore wind farms in Europe could shave off more than $1,000 per turbine per year in inspection costs, thus reducing the cost of producing electricity by 1%.

renewable energy drones
Chart courtesy of Bloomberg

Jamie Mordarski, Director of Operations and Maintenance, Americas at SMA, a leading global specialist in photovoltaic system technology, said using drones to inspect their solar products gives them “a tremendous competitive advantage.”

But they may actually be able to generate renewable energy themselves. Some companies are researching how tethered drones and adapted kites could hover at high altitude to harness greater wind power. Companies including Swiss startup Skypull are working on using drones as flying turbines. Meanwhile Makani, which is affiliated with Google, is developing what are essentially huge tethered kites.

Wind power generated five times more electricity in 2018 than in 2008, according to US Energy Information Administration data, yet it still represents just 4% of the world’s electricity supply.

But high-altitude winds are more efficient at providing wind energy than at lower altitudes (that’s why you typically see wind turbines high up on hills). Naturally, drones can get to that same “high up on hill” (or even higher) point. In fact, a 2012 study from California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory found that high-altitude winds alone could provide 100 times the global energy need.

Los Angeles, Calif.-based DroneBase’s $7.5 million Series C funding round included new investors Valor Equity Partners and Razi Ventures, who join Union Square Ventures, Upfront Ventures, Hearst Ventures, Pritzker Group Venture Capital, and DJI in the round that brought their total funding to $32 million.

The new DroneBase funding confirms that the drone economy across many verticals including agriculture, delivery and, yes, renewable energy, is growing — even as coronavirus has forced a number of other economies to shrink.

DroneBase says it has continued to increase sales and set new revenue records in March, April, and May.

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