Most people are surprised when they hear Jackson Rollins say he flies drones for the power company, but whether it’s at a field of solar panels or inside a nuclear plant, he can show how the technology is helping Duke Energy.
Rollins manages Duke Energy’s Unmanned Aerial Systems team, which has grown from two employees in 2015 to more than 40 as the company saw how drones could keep teammates safe and perform work that was previously impossible. In 2020, the team completed roughly 2,000 assignments. This year, they’re on pace to double that.
He, along with Chief Unmanned Aerial Systems Pilot Garrett Scott and Sensor Specialist Isaac Medford, took over Duke Energy’s Instagram to show you what a career in unmanned aerial systems is like. Here are a few ways they’re using drones at Duke Energy.
Duke Energy plans to double its renewable energy portfolio by 2025 as part of its goal to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. As it builds more solar facilities, drones can inspect the panels more quickly than traditional methods.
A pilot can fly a drone with an infrared camera over a field of panels, which will show faulty panels through heat signatures. If a panel is not converting sunlight to electricity efficiently, it will be hotter than a panel that’s operating correctly and appear yellow. After analyzing the data, technicians can correct the issues.
Before drones, technicians would use a handheld thermal imaging device to test each section of a solar field, which can span hundreds of acres. By inspecting thousands of panels in minutes, drones help solve problems faster resulting in more clean energy generated.
“It's certainly an exciting time at Duke Energy,” Rollins said, “where aviation is able to help meet our goals for keeping our customers lights on and reducing our carbon footprint.”
Drones help with mapping and modeling during construction of power plants, solar and wind facilities. The team flies a few hundred feet over new sites from Florida to the Carolinas, the Midwest and western United States. The photography and data are compiled to create a digital version of the area or components.
Project managers can use this information for a record of the site, to track progress or to get measurements of equipment or the site. The team provides mapping and modeling for existing facilities, too.
“Any information that we can provide to increase the efficiency and capacity of those sites,” Rollins said, “makes them more cost effective to the customer.”
After hurricanes, Duke Energy can quickly deploy drone operators to assess damage. Helicopters are the primary tool because they can travel farther, but drones can perform more detailed inspections and access areas helicopters can’t for a unique perspective.
Drone operators can tell how much vegetation is down after high winds or flooding and see what power poles, lines or equipment is damaged. They can also find the best paths to access equpiment, which reduces the need for people to walk in hazardous areas and helps crews determine what repairs are needed.
“We're able to help our linemen and our technicians,” Scott said, “who are out in the field trying to restore power safer and faster.”
Instead of climbing structures like wind turbines or transmission towers that can be hundreds of feet tall, drones can do a preliminary inspection to reduce the number of times people have to climb. Drones can take photographs from multiple angles and zoom in to see details like cracks in porcelain insulators that would be difficult to see from the ground with binoculars.
The team uses drones to fly in confined spaces in power plants that can be hazardous or difficult to access. In some cases, drone inspections can eliminate the need for scaffolding, which saves money and, more importantly, reduces hazardous tasks for employees.
As drones, cameras and sensors improve, Scott said, this type of work will be even more productive.
“The technology is going to grow,” he said, “and what we're able to deliver for our customers and for our partners within the company is just going to continue to grow as well.”