Digital tools for solar construction in the post COVID era

5 min read

SenseHawk’s software has been used in construction management of over 3GW of solar projects in the last 12 months. The feedback from all our customers, across different countries and continents, has been the same: Coronavirus is impacting current and planned construction activities on utility-scale solar sites. Industry participants have listed work and site access restrictions as the biggest obstacle to post-pandemic recovery, with challenges that range from travel restrictions and social distancing requirements to the real and present danger of contracting or spreading COVID on a construction site.

Project managers are trying to create new workflows that mitigate the challenges associated with COVID-19, while meeting already stretched deadlines and budgets caused by the knock-on effects of the severe lockdowns from last year. All this, while reducing the number of boots on the ground to a minimum (resulting in a reduction of foremen/field managers and on-site technicians). The makings of a perfect storm, some might say.  Consider these situations (faced by our customers last year): 

  1. You find that several tracker posts on your site have been drilled to incorrect depths. TAT on getting the drilling equipment back on-site is 2 months due to COVID backlog, so you are staring at significant delays. 
  2. NCU controller cables were incorrectly labeled for one of the inverters resulting in unresponsive trackers – significant electrical rework is required. You’re already 2 weeks too late for your hot commissioning deadline. Also, your team is operating at 50% capacity due to a COVID outbreak in a neighbouring town, so you are looking at stiff penalties for missing cliff dates. 

So, how does a project manager adjust to the new reality, where there can be absolutely no mistakes on the field, and efficiency, at times, needs to go up by 100%? 

STEP 1: Know exactly what is happening on site

This might sound simple enough – every project manager will want to trust the reports being turned in by their foremen and their subcontractors. In practice, however, the construction progress being reported on site is off by upto 20%. The problem is not one of malfeasance or carelessness – it is just humanly impossible for a person to give an accurate estimate of installed numbers, without an aerial view of the site. How do you fix this?

Below is the construction progress map of a solar plant, created using high-res drone imagery. An ML based algorithm accurately counts the number of installed components, and classifies and colour codes more complex installations based on the state of progress. The user can either view these reports online on a cloud based app, or these reports may be exported to the user’s project management system, to reflect the on-ground reality accurately. Drone flights may be carried out once a week, or more frequently, to give an accurate representation of construction progress. 

STEP 2: Identify issues, early

Remember our customer who realised that tracker posts were drilled to incorrect depths? They didn’t really face crippling delays in construction – they had a drone map available to check pile depths the same week that the piles were drilled, and corrective action was taken the very next week. They also had a “Digital Twin” of the solar plant loaded onto the construction monitoring platform – allowing users to identify exactly which component had quality issues, directly on the drone map. 

From the high-res map above, it is quite obvious that some piles have been driven to different depths than others. The customer was able to exactly locate the tracker posts that needed remediation (for instance, in the map above, tracker number S03 R48 in inverter Block 55 has been selected on the map, and has Post number 5 drilled to an incorrect depth). 

STEP 3: Communicate and remediate, NOT on email

Once the customer identified the faulty posts, remediation could have happened in two ways:

  1. Send an excel list of faulty tracker posts to the field for remediation
  2. Create a digital list of remediation tasks and checklists, individually assigned to team members, on an interactive map-based mobile application

No prizes for guessing which method was employed. The project manager bulk created tasks for each faulty post, directly on the desktop app.

These tasks were individually assigned to field engineers. Field engineers logged in to the mobile application to navigate around the site, directly to the task locations.

Detailed checklists were assigned to each task. Field engineers checked off each checklist item, and attached photographs of work progress to the task. The project manager could in-turn attach PDFs and other reference files to the task on the desktop application, in case help was needed on the field.

In this manner, a complex task that might have needed multiple rounds of checks and re-checks by the project manager, was converted into a collaborative effort, that required fewer emails and phone-calls to organize. At the end of each day, the project manager could check work progress directly on a single reporting dashboard:

Customers have been using similar workflows for dealing with other routine and one-off construction tasks, including:

  • QA/ QC checks
  • Punch list creation and remediation
  • Inventory checks using mobile bar-code scanning applications
  • Post-construction thermography (drone based and hand-held) and fault remediation
  • Post-construction shadow analysis 

While we cannot pretend to provide a single, one size-fits all solution to all your COVID related problems, what we can do is help you minimize the associated risks across the project lifecycle. The examples quoted here show only a glimpse of what is possible with a completely digitized construction workflow. If you would like to know more about this and our other solutions, contact us today.

SenseHawk

SenseHawk

SenseHawk, Inc. is a provider of cloud based drone data analytics and productivity tools for the solar industry. With customers in 15 countries, SenseHawk solutions are used by solar & EPC companies for terrain analytics, construction monitoring, thermography and task management on solar sites

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