The following post was written by Jason Steinberg, CEO of Scanifly, which is a drone-based, 3D-modeling software company focused on automating the solar survey and design process.
Initially thought of as either military tools or a fun hobby, drones are now becoming a particularly big part of the mainstream industry. This is especially true in the solar industry, as contractors realize drones make site surveying 5x more efficient and way safer. Yet, despite the massive economic opportunity, only an estimated 10% of solar contractors use drones in their business operations.
If you’re a drone pilot hoping to enter the solar industry or become a solar drone surveyor, you’re in luck. Here’s a mini-guide on how drone pilots can make money in the solar industry:
Step 1: Identify your niche
Drones are typically used in the solar industry for four main purposes:
1. Site surveying: Taking roughly 10-20 minutes onsite, site surveying usually entails taking a couple hundred photos using a point of interest (POI) flight path to capture oblique imagery. These images are used to create to-scale 3D models for solar installations, which are incredibly valuable for automating the survey and design process. For a drone pilot, this is a high volume, low margin effort. If you have a co-location of projects and can do a lot of them in a day, then this is a great option.
2. Construction reporting: Solar Drones help with construction reporting for large-scale projects, like Topaz Solar Farms, or when you need to get a good view from above that you can’t get manually. Gathering the images is a fairly simple process that typically takes. This is also a recurring business effort as you are taking photos every day or week, so you’ll have to return to a variety of sites to capture similar perspectives.
3. Thermal scanning for maintenance: Thermal scanning is ubiquitous for hot spot detection on large-scale projects but less common in small-scale sites. This kind of work is more costly than solar site surveying, requires higher value equipment, and includes a lot more post-processing work. With that in mind, it’s best for confident pilots with considerable experience and comfort to use more sophisticated drone and photography technology. Most jobs will require half a day or more for travel and several hours onsite.
4. Marketing photos of completed sites: Marketing photos are also fairly simple but are taken with an artist’s eye versus just capturing context. Further, drone-based marketing images are often edited after the fact, though this process is easy to learn.
Surveying or thermal scanning will be the highest-paying work, but also requires specific solar knowledge. Construction reporting and marketing photos are good break-in points if you’re completely new to solar.
Step 2: Demonstrate credentials
Having a Part 107 FAA license is required for flying drones in commercial circumstances, but having one is just the beginning. Your license card is more than just permission to fly; it’s a signal of professionalism that can help when navigating thorny customer (and customer’s neighbor) issues.
Further, having your license is a great way to demonstrate you have applicable knowledge that relates to not just aviation, but the solar industry as the test requires you to have awareness of different sites, topographies, weather, and house structures.
If you don’t have your Part 107 drone pilot certificate, you can get it in about a week if studying part-time (and there are many online Part 107 test prep courses), so it’s not a massive hurdle to get over.
Step 3: Step up your solar knowledge
If you’re hoping to get a foot into the solar industry, you should consider taking courses with SEI and NABCEP. These two bodies are respected across the country, are leaders in solar curriculum worldwide, and show that the recipients of their designations have a dedication to solar.
If you’re just getting started and aren’t sure if you want to invest in certifications yet, free blogs and trade magazines include Solar Power World, Drone Life’s Surveying category, and even the Scanifly blog.
You can also take your knowledge one step further, going from simply learning solar to learning how to build a solar drone program and navigating difficult environmental and weather conditions.
Step 4: Build your solar network
If you want to try solar out part-time before committing, you can find work through major drone platforms:
If you want to get a full-time job in solar, take a look at local contractor websites to see what’s posted.
You can also build your network by reading industry publications and blogs (see step 3) and by connecting with top names in solar on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Solar Power World’s Top Contractors list.
Step 5: Ace the interview
Whether interviewing for a full-time job or just to do the occasional project, most solar contractors will ask you about:
- General background on drone experience
- Airspace and flight planning skills
- 3D mapping skills
- Drone positioning skills
- Geography where they work and insurance coverage
- How you deal with customers
Be ready for these questions with honest answers, context, and any explanations for gaps or missing information. In specific, be ready for questions about why you’re interested in solar since most contractors want to work with people who have passion for the industry and have some customer-facing experience.
Drones are the future for solar energy
Solar drone usage is booming now that regulators are relaxing drone laws, but contractors can’t find drone talent fast enough. This creates a massive opportunity for people who already know how to fly (and enjoy flying) drones.
The Scanifly Drone Surveyor Associate Program will train any solar professional, specifically, solar surveyors, to commercially fly drones and how to build a solar drone program. By the end of the program, it is expected that participants will obtain their Part 107 remote drone pilot license and fully understand how to utilize and implement drones in a solar contractor’s workflow. While Scanifly is not a Part 107 curriculum provider, the company will assist in your studying and will direct you to use several curriculum options including the Drone Pilot Ground School, HeatSpring, Udemy, and others.
By learning the basics of solar, you develop a marketable, profitable skill based on something you already like doing. What could be better than that? If you’re interested in expanding your career prospects in 2022, learn more about the Scanifly Drone Surveyor Associate Program.
-By Jason Steinberg
Jason Steinberg is the CEO of Scanifly and oversees the company’s operational and financial functions. Previously, Jason helped finance $3B of renewable energy projects and companies for CohnReznick Capital. Jason also worked for Bloomberg NEF as a lead data researcher, and as a PV rooftop installer in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Jason graduated from Muhlenberg College with a degree in Finance and Sustainability and is a CFA Charterholder, a NABCEP PV Associate and Part 107 Remote Drone Pilot.