In the renewable energy industry, many companies worldwide find that distances between offices and installation sites pose a significant challenge for surveying and project management.
Drones for Site Management
The current market rise of drone use provides new, unique aerial vantage points at a fraction of the cost of helicopter services, but this drone technology still requires observers to be onsite to view these video feeds. More traditional photo/video content is still widely relied upon for site inspection and project updates, with captured footage uploaded to the Internet for viewing by remote audiences.
However, there are inherent shortcomings associated with this approach: damaged/corrupted memory cards with no backup content prior to upload is risky, not to mention the multiple steps and time required to upload footage to cloud storage platforms (e.g., Dropbox, Google Drive, WeTransfer).
For renewable energy companies, the challenge then becomes balancing reliance on captured photo/video for offsite observation with in-person facility visits. When hundreds or thousands of miles separate a project management team from its facility, being onsite can be a costly, time-consuming proposition.
Fortunately, video broadcast technology companies have recently developed portable, low-cost products to virtualize the onsite experience through real-time, reliable HD streaming via cellular and satellite networks. Providers in this domain include KenCast, TVU, and LiveU. The result is a financially effective, high performing solution to avoid significant operational costs associated with onsite facility visits.
Live Video Transmission
The key to these products lies in how the video is transmitted from the field to the Internet. Embedded within these devices are multiple cellular modems whose bandwidths are “bonded” together to create a large data pipeline.
The video is distributed across these connections based on available bandwidth to establish a strong, reliable connection. Multiple cellular providers’ SIM cards are used concurrently to avoid relying on one single network’s coverage.
For energy facilities that fall within a cellular network range, this solution enables reliable live video broadcast to the Internet with little delay. For facilities outside of network footprints, many of these products can be used in conjunction with small satellite dishes for portable satellite connectivity.
Although more expensive than cellular data, this option is extremely portable, reliable and easy-to-use. Other Internet connection options for these products generally include Wi-Fi or Ethernet (if available).
In addition to live broadcasting, many of these products can leverage high-bandwidth capabilities for rapid file upload to a variety of cloud storage platforms. Onsite workers can use this capability to instantly send large amounts of photo/video content from out in the field to colleagues all over the world in a fraction of the time relative to traditional computer file upload.
This field video broadcast hardware comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from server units to small, lightweight backpack devices. From an operational standpoint, this technology could not be easier to deploy: simply turning the units on and connecting to the Internet in one of the ways mentioned above enables full remote control from anywhere in the world.
From a format perspective, this technology is compatible with a wide variety of camera sources. A combination of drone and ground-based camera feeds can provide project supervisors with comprehensive coverage for site visualization from multiple vantage points, all in real-time.
End users can watch these HD feeds in a variety of ways, the most common of which being via a web-based streaming platform (e.g., Livestream, UStream). These streams are generally password protected and enable audiences to view broadcasts with less than five seconds of delay, worldwide.
Streams can be played on PC browsers as well as on all smart devices (iOS and Android) for portable viewing. Some of these platforms are built for only a few concurrent viewers whereas others can simultaneously stream to hundreds or thousands of observers worldwide. Once live broadcasts are complete, these Internet streaming platforms automatically store the footage in the cloud for later viewing.
Although already widely in use within the broadcast and entertainment media markets, this high-performance mobile live video technology has only recently begun being adopted within the renewable energy industry.
For solar PV applications, consider this: a site manager receives delivery of a few hundred PV panels from a Chinese manufacturer. However, upon opening the delivery crates, the manager and crew discover that a considerable number of the panels have shattered, rendering them unusable in the array being installed.
The project management team is located many hours away from the job site — needless to say, they aren’t pleased when they receive the phone call with the bad news from the site manager.
Using live video broadcast technology via bonding cellular networks with worksite Wi-Fi, project managers don’t need to rely on select photos or phone calls to understand the damage. Now, they can see the extent of the damage in real-time and communicate back to the site manager operating the camera through the technology, as well, all from any device (computer, Android, iOS, etc.).
After the real-time broadcast is complete, the footage is automatically archived in the cloud. The footage can then be easily distributed to others within the company and forwarded to the shipping company and Chinese manufacturer for claims assessment purposes.
For wind applications, consider this: a few multi-MW wind turbines are being installed hundreds of miles away from the project’s management team. As the group oversees a variety of facilities, they are not able to be onsite for the installation but would still like to see the attachment of the turbine blades.
Therefore, one of the onsite workers — who is a trained operator of the company’s inspection UAV (“drone”) — powers up the aircraft and connects the ground controller’s HDMI output into a backpack bonded cellular transmitter unit.
Once the UAV takes flight, a real-time live HD broadcast begins using multiple cellular connections simultaneously to transmit video data back to the management team. Aerial views from above the turbine blades and close-up views of the fixtures as they are being assembled provide management with a clear sense of the entire assembly dynamic.
The team is able to view a feed of specific elements of the new construction on their computers, TV screens, or Android/iOS devices while communicating with the drone operator in real-time. After the real-time broadcast is complete, the footage is automatically archived in the cloud.
In the weeks/months following the completed turbine construction, the management team continues to rely on the drone/bonded cellular broadcast capabilities to oversee equipment inspection, all without having to be onsite.