In a first for Japan, renewable energy firm afterFIT has received approval to fly autonomous drones beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) at night. The approval has been granted by the Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism.
afterFIT uses drones to conduct inspections at its 1,924KW solar power plant in the Tochigi Prefecture. The drones, however, are operated from the company’s Tokyo headquarters – some 124 miles away.
To enable these BVLOS drone inspections, afterFIT uses a modular system comprising of DJI drones, a low-cost docking station, and drone autonomy specialist FlytBase’s FlytNow Auto software.
Explaining how the missions are conducted, afterFIT says it configures the drone to fly autonomously along a predetermined route scheduled on FlytNow, inspect solar panels, and live-stream infrared video feed and images back to the command center. Each inspection round takes about 20 minutes. Following the data collection, an AI system generates anomaly reports for the power plant.
afterFIT says drone deployment has enabled it to bring down the time it takes to inspect one MW from three hours to less than 10 minutes. Further, the use of a drone docking station has allowed the company to increase the frequency of inspections as well. Solar power plants that were previously inspected only once a year are now examined for damage and defects more frequently.
In addition to automating routine solar panel inspections, afterFIT has been using autonomous drones for several other purposes as well:
- Security surveillance: To achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, the Japanese government has proposed doubling the number of solar farms. One effect of that is that the price of copper wire has increased, as have the instances of copper wire thefts. So, when necessary, the drone flies to a suspected anomaly and alerts both management and any potential intruder. With the new nighttime BVLOS operations waiver, afterFIT would be able to strengthen the security of the premises even further.
- Reducing workforce involvement: To compensate for Japan’s aging population, which has resulted in a significant shortage of skilled personnel, labor-saving measures have become necessary. And autonomous drones have emerged as the perfect fit in this scenario.
- Cost-savings: afterFIT says it has previously invested heavily in transporting crews to and from power plant sites. But with autonomous drones helping with both routine maintenance and early detection of defects, operational costs have been reduced.