Using Drones to Help Size Homes Up for Solar Panels

Solar power is an infinitely renewable source of energy. If private homes and buildings around the world all switched to solar power sources, there would be a dramatic decrease in fossil fuel emissions. In 2007, Lynn Jurich and Edward Fenster founded Sunrun, a solar panel provider, out of the San Francisco Bay Area to take on the challenge of combating global climate change on a local level. Lynn recalled people thinking she and Ed were crazy to take on such a massive mission, but there was no stopping them. “I believed in the possibility to power our entire world with the sun and wanted to build a community to do it,” Lynn said. “We believed that solar could best be used in the hands of the people, establishing a cleaner, more affordable and more resilient energy future.” Coming up with the idea of solar service, where customers pay for the power, not the panels, Sunrun has become the leading home solar power provider in the United States.

As the company grew, they realized they needed a more efficient way to assess homes in need of solar panels. “We were still hand-measuring roofs using tape measures. There’s a lot of human error involved in that,” Paul Helm, Sunrun project manager, said. “Our technicians were spending upwards of three to four hours per site, which made it really difficult to hit the targets we were setting of multiple surveys per day.” So in 2019, Sunrun teamed up with another San Francisco Bay Area startup, DroneDeploy, to utilize drone technology for solar panel assessment.

With drones, Sunrun technicians could quickly scan and map a customer’s home. The data collected by the drone was far more informative than that which was being manually collected. Not only did technicians get precise dimensions with the drones, but they could also see the overall condition of the roof too. If there were any spots in need of repair, the drone software could notify the team well in advance. Technicians could use the drone data to map out ideal panel placement based on shade coverage for optimal power absorption. Paul said that with the drones they have reduced the technician surveys from an average of 2 hours to around 15 minutes and reduced any fitting complications by 35%.

When first teaming up with DroneDeploy, Sunrun purchased 110 DJI Mavic 2 Pro drones, along with the DroneDeploy mapping software. Paul said it didn’t take long for Sunrun to realize that the benefits of the drones went beyond quick surveys. The company was saving time and money, attracting more customers, and most importantly, keeping technicians safe. Today Sunrun has 245 drones, each with its own dedicated Part 107 pilot. They have conducted more than 7,000 flights and are looking into new ways to engage drones in solar solutions. Sunrun is next hoping to use drones to survey attics and home interiors to help optimize solar power sources. “We’re actually just scratching the surface,” Paul said. “We see the potential for drones and supporting equipment to really create an autonomous site survey.”

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