At the edge of a plot of muddy farmland, a few miles down the road from the University of California at Davis, an engineer takes a few quick steps across crop rows and lets go of a three-foot drone.
Within seconds, the device – which weighs less than 2lbs and carries a powerful camera – ascends hundreds of feet into the cold, clear, blue sky and begins to snap detailed photos of the ground far below, including a long row of large solar panels mounted on steel poles.
This flight is just a test, demonstrated by Kingsley Chen, the drone fleet coordinator for SunPower at the solar company’s research and development center, which is under construction and about a two-hour drive northeast of the San Francisco Bay Area.
The drone will enable SunPower to survey a wide region and help design a solar power farm that can fit more solar panels on a piece of land, more quickly and for lower costs than it previously could.
The test highlights a growing use of the latest computing technologies – drones, robots, software, sensors and networks – by US companies to design, build and operate solar farms.
After seeing the prices of solar panels drop dramatically over the past decade, companies are looking for new ways to cut costs and compete with fossil fuel power through project design.
Cutting down the amount of land used by solar farms has additional benefits, particularly in places like California.
It minimizes environmental impact, an issue that can be controversial for large projects built for utilities because they tend to spread across hundreds of acres of land in remote regions.
Some of these projects have riled environmentalists, attracted lawsuits and forced solar companies, including SunPower, to commit money for land for wildlife conservation.