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Quite a few drone developments focus on clean energy technologies for powering the unmanned aerial vehicles. But drones can also contribute to the environment in other aspects. There is a growing trend of companies developing drones 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.

In recent years, wind turbines have gotten taller and wind blades and rotors have gotten bigger, making maintenance a complex task. A drone made by Aerones, can solve the problem of snow accumulation on the blades of high wind turbines by spraying a liquid across the surface of the blades. The same unmanned aerial vehicle can also clean bugs and dirt off turbine blades, the sides of buildings and solar panels.

The wind turbine cleaning and de-icing drones are a little more unusual than the standard drones you see hovering over parks. Their unique design, increased power of the system, stabilization algorithms and tilting propellers enable the drones to reliably and steadily fly up to 1,000 feet off the ground while spraying liquids and lifting up to 440 pounds.

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. Other applications include firefighting, rescue, delivery and sports.  

A report from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) says 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.

A startup called SkySpecs has developed a 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).

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, claims  

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 preventive maintenance.