In the energy industry, when oil and gas pipeline owners want to inspect pipelines, add or remove fluids, or separate ingredients, they use what are called “pigs”.

These devices are superb for determining the internal safety and functionality of pipelines, but they can’t do anything about external conditions. That is where a 20th century technology called UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), or drones, come in. 

Described to investors in late 2015 as a “fairly risky niche play”, the technology has moved so rapidly that in Feb. 2016 Xcel Energy (NYSE: XEL), Texas, announced that it had become the first utility using drones to inspect its more than 320,000 miles of electricity and natural gas lines. Xcel’s choice is a Vapor 55 from Pulse Aerospace, a “medium-sized ”helicopter-type UAV. Drones also come in fixed-wing models. Commercial-grade drones cost from about $5,000 to $30,000, with fixed-wing types slightly more. 

Rather than sending workers out into the field, utilities can now send drones, whose onboard cameras can “see” across all spectrums, from normal light to infrared and ultraviolet (i.e., thermal imaging), revealing the presence of petroleum  and mineral deposits. Multispectral imaging can also be used to map terrain in forested areas. 

Helicopter-type drones can hover at up to 10,000 feet, or drop down at two miles-per-second, to within a few feet of a given location, and do so at temperatures (-13° to 100° F) and humidity (90 percent) humans would find extremely uncomfortable. They can fly at up to 30 mph, in wind speeds up to 18 mph, take off and land vertically, and carry about two pounds of equipment. Moreover, they are relatively quiet – emitting only 72 decibels at one mile. All this can be packed inside a case only slightly larger than a laptop. 

Whether inspecting and cleaning a 100-acre field of solar panels, checking the outside and inside of a 1,300-foot smokestack, mapping blown transformers and other transmission/distribution line components (in advance of repair crews), or flying over deserts and mountain ranges to map the best courses for power lines or gas and oil pipelines, drones can do the work, and all without risking human life. 

Drones literally save lives. Power line work is one of the top 10 most dangerous jobs in the nation. Utility work in general is among the top 25, as workers face the dangers of not only electricity, but also dangerous terrain and hostile conditions like extreme heat, cold, dehydration, and physical endurance. Oil and gas workers have even higher mortality rates. 

The difficulty with the first generation of drones is their power source. Batteries and fuel both have a one-way-only option in terms of distance. For example, if a battery-powered drone can only fly for 20 minutes with a payload, that is 10 minutes or less one way. At 30 miles per hour, the drone will have to be launched within 16 miles of its objective, and this may not always be possible. 

Drones operating off combustible fuels face a similar problem. A two-way trip of any length requires a fairly heavy payload (of fuel). Reducing the amount of fuel improves the distance/weight ratio, but impacts the actual distance. It’s lose-lose either way. 

Solar-powered drones overcome the obstacles of manmade power. Operators do not need to account for the return trip, because solar-powered drones are constantly adding power to their onboard, Li-ion battery packs as long as the sun is shining. In fact, solar drones are being labeled as the 21st century’s best replacement for roustabouts, line inspection crews, right-of-way agents, and other types of energy industry field services crews. 

The solar-powered drone industry may be in its infancy – as the commercial-grade drone market was only last year – but given the speed at which solar photovoltaic (PV) technology is advancing – both in terms of lighter-weight materials and more productive solar cells – it won’t be long before solar UAVs make most fuel- and battery-powered drones obsolete. 

Take Alta Devices (now operating as a subsidiary of Hanergy TFP (HKSE: 0566.HK), whose solar cells have achieved a remarkable 31.6 percent efficiency using very light thin film that makes it ideal for powering solar UAVs. Alta also holds the record for single-junction cells at 28.8 percent: the Shockley-Queisser limit (maximum theoretical efficiency) caps output at about 33.7 percent. Both records were undreamed-of a mere decade ago. 

In fact, it isn’t technology holding back solar-powered UAVs. The problem is crowding. The Consumer Technology Association, or CTA, estimates the commercial drone industry to increase 113 percent during 2016. Recreational drone sales are likely to rise even more – by 149 percent. A case in point would be August 2015 pilot sightings of more than 780 drones, some operating as high as 10,000 feet. This compares sharply with a mere 238 sightings in all of 2014. 

Equally as important, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), whose authority to regulate UAVs is ambiguous at best, has made licensing and use of commercial drones almost impossible, while offering recreational users as little as $10 and electronic registration over the Internet. This disadvantage means industry has to jump through 10,000 hoops to make use of the most important labor- and life-saving technology of the last 100 years. 

Investors should take heart, however, knowing that industry recognition of the value of solar-powered UAVs will propel both the technology and the regulatory atmosphere at about the same rate as first-generation drones. By the end of 2016, this observer expects to see solar-powered drones operating among all of the nation’s top 25 investor-owned utilities, as solar UAV firms transition from R&D startups to OTC, NASDAQ and even NYSE status.


Companies to Watch: 

Aerial Power Ltd, based in the UK, makes SolarBrush, the first dedicated solar panel cleaning attachment for UAVs, or drones. Clean solar panels in arid regions can slash maintenance costs by as much as 70 percent, and increase energy production by up to 30 percent. 

Bye Aerospace subsidiary Bye Engineering is a consultancy business with experience in alternative energy propulsion systems for general aviation aircraft. Founder George Bye is the developer of the Silent Guardian, a solar-powered drone built in cooperation with BoldIQ, a software firm. Bye Engineering, working with Global Near Space Services (both out of Colorado), developed the Starlight high altitude long endurance solar electric airship. 

Skycatch, a year-old start-up based in San Francisco, has raised $3.2 million from Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) and other investors. Business and technology publication Fast Company marks it as No. 4 out of the 10 top companies in its sector. The company has already signed deals to test its technology with the construction giants Bechtel and DPR; First Solar (NASDAQ:FSLR), a developer of photovoltaic power plants; and SolarCity (NASDAQ: SCTY), a solar panel installer. Drones from Skycatch and more established companies are monitoring power lines, inspecting oil and gas pipelines, checking wind turbines for defects and pinpointing malfunctioning solar panels. 

Titan Aerospace Holdings, Inc., developer of the high-altitude, long endurance (HALE) solar-powered UAVs Solara 50 and Solara 60, was acquired by Google in 2014. The latest solar powered drone project from Google is called the Skybender, and is designed not for power applications but for high-speed data transmission.

AeroVironment (NASDAQ: AVAV) is one of the few public companies in the commercial drone space. These drones currently represent a limited part of the company’s revenue, according to COO Wahid Nawabi, because the UAVs are in “early development”. In spite of that, its largest customer is the U.S. Department of Defense, and sales represent almost 10 percent of gross revenues.

 Jeanne Roberts is an award winning freelance writer covering the environment, sustainability, social justice, health, politics, and the natural world. She has roots in the corporate world as a California reporter and a communications specialist at a large public utility and has spent the past 10 years working as an editor for a small-cap stock site, and as an environmental/political/social justice blogger for The PanelistCelsias,Cooler PlanetDeSmogBlogEnergy, the Clean Tech Blog,EarthTechling, and various other online publications. Ms. Roberts has written a book on alternative energy sources, sustainable home building, and environmental initiatives for homeowners available on Amazon.