5 Tips for Building a National Solar Drone Program

For years, all solar surveyors worked manually. They’d climb up on roofs, measure steep roof pitches by hand, and provide manual drawings to designers. Around 2016, Empire Solar Group decided to try drones – a novel technology at the time – to improve site survey quality and speed. It worked. The company exploded, growing to over 600 employees by 2021, in part due to the efficiency and cool-factor of their national solar drone program.

Empire Solar Group learned a few things the hard way when it came to implementing drone use for hundreds of employees across the United States. Looking back, the operations and leadership team shared their top five insights for any company looking to use drones in their solar business.

1. Focus on training and making surveyors comfortable with drones

Despite how inefficient (and dangerous) manual site surveys can be, it’s critical for leaders to recognize that most solar surveyors haven’t used drones before and will need some training to get comfortable handling a drone.

“At $1,000 each, surveyors are worried about crashing drones and that money coming out of their salaries,” said Bernard Saujon, the National Survey Manager at Empire Solar Group. “It’s important to provide proper training out of the gate and make sure surveyors feel comfortable handling drones before using them full-time.”

Bernard also said that you can deliver a lot of drone training remotely, but make sure there’s at least some in-person elements. This can take some time up front, but Steve Buchmiller, the COO of Empire Solar Group, said you can make this cost up very quickly.

“Within the first few months, it was evident that drones were saving us time on site,” said Steve. “But if I could go back, I’d focus on more in-depth training to speed up drone implementation and reduce early mistakes.”

2. Keep extra drones at the ready

Even with high quality training, crashes and accidents happen. Aaron Gardner, the Director of Operations for Empire Solar Group, said he’s heard everything from freak tornado winds to drones seemingly dropping out of the sky. As a result, he advises all companies to have a few extra drones handy at your headquarters. That way if a surveyor calls in a broken drone, you can send another one immediately, reducing that surveyor’s downtime.

Aaron also recommends building up an in-house skill set for basic drone troubleshooting or preventative maintenance skills. This doesn’t need to be a full-time employee at the start; you can cross-train someone to jump in when necessary for drone repairs.

“Be ready for repairs,” said Aaron. “You don’t want your surveyors to not have a drone for weeks at a time.”

3. Make the most of a site survey

Drones can make site surveys significantly more efficient, but it’s not just about shortening time on site. Bernard found that drones helped be more thorough on a site survey. Instead of only measuring the roof and leaving to the next job, he’s able to spend a few more minutes measuring all areas of a site including garages, outbuildings, and internal space measurements.

“Drones can help you map things like electrical components, where you can mount things, or access points,” said Bernard. “This is helpful because if contracts change (which they often can), you’ll have everything you need without needing to make another site visit to re-check.”

Many changes appear small but require another site survey, such as moving an electrical component into the garage instead of keeping it outside. With drones capturing it all the first time, the team is able to be more flexible, saving time for the team and providing a better customer experience without additional cost.

4. Use organization-wide success metrics

Companies considering drones need to think organization-wide when looking at the ROI of a drone program. Here’s what the Empire Solar Group team noticed were the biggest four categories:

1 – Financial wins: You may not have to pay for additional insurance or buy roof safety equipment when using drones. Further, increased accuracy from drones means you can eliminate any planning resubmission fees to correct a manual-measurement error. You also won’t have to continue paying for aerial or satellite image platforms.

2 – Company efficiency: Accuracy from drone images meant designers worked more quickly. Further, sales teams were able to make more accurate promises to prospects when comparing their projects to comparable previously completed work.

3 – Customer experience: Simply put: customers like drones. The Empire Solar Group team wasn’t expecting this, but often found people were fascinated by the drones. They’d talk about it with friends or their kids would come out and watch the surveyors work, resulting in a valuable intangible cool-factor for Empire Solar Group.

4 – Reputation: More accuracy means you can stand by your word with fewer implementation problems. That rolls up into a stronger company reputation that builds trust with customers and prospects.

“Install completions have gone up because we have more accurate imagery from drones,” said Aaron. “Drone imagery made us more efficient in the design process, which in turn helped us spend less on wasted labor time in installations. We also don’t have to resubmit for approvals and drop panels due to measurement errors, which is hard to specifically measure in terms of costs but is absolutely bad for business.”

5. Management needs to be involved from end to end

“Don’t just throw drones at your surveyors and hope for the best,” said Bernard. Be involved with the whole process end to end.”

Bernard said that if drones are new for your company, lean on partners and other experts in the drone ecosystem. He said Empire Solar Group leaned on Scanifly to help with some training, both on how to fly drones and how to use Scanifly’s program effectively once everyone got a handle on flying.

“We noticed that drones helped us streamline execution throughout the entire business,” said Steve. “Solar installations are one of the most complex projects in the home improvement space. Lots can go wrong, but drones helped us find potential issues quickly and set better expectations. When we can set better expectations, we can provide a better experience for both homeowners and installation workers.”

For more information on this, join Scanifly and Solar Power World on March 24 @ 2pm EST for a webinar entitled “Surveying to Scale: How to survey 10+ sites per day with two feet on the ground.”

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