What’s black, has red and yellow striped legs, four wings, and flies vertically and horizontally? Thinking insect? Nope. Try a non-animal coaxial Unmanned Aerial System (also known in popular vernacular as a “drone”) or UAS. This week, French Prairie Rest Area became testing grounds for just such a device to lift off from the hot asphalt.
The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) owns a portion of land adjacent to the back parking lot of I-5’s northbound French Prairie. In 2012 ODOT and Portland General Electric (PGE) built a 1.75 megawatt solar station on seven acres, firing up an energy grid that powers 11 percent of ODOT’s electrical needs in the area.
Since the “Baldock Solar Highway” (named after ODOT engineer Sam Baldock) has been operational for several years, it was time to see if adjustments or repairs were needed. However, how do you gauge temperature performance and critical functionality within a sea of almost 7,000 solar panels? Enter the portable and high-tech aerial robot with a visage resembling a giant mosquito.
Aerial Inspection Resources (A.I.R.), a local UAS company from Portland, teamed with ODOT to see if their UAS would capture the kind of real-time data necessary for the solar array to continue operating at top-notch speeds. The A.I.R. team installed a bank of computers and monitors at the rest stop, wired up the drone, and sent it soaring over the solar highway.
The same type of tiny USB powered cameras used on space shuttles were mounted on the futuristic UAS, enabling the drone to capture temperatures and other images that merged simultaneously with other cloud-captured data—creating 3D thermal maps and other scans capable of predicting potential panel failure.
According to A.I.R., the ability of their image sensors improves the accuracy of testing energy or power grid performance. The UAS is capable of capturing in a very short period of time, data that shows component overheating or corona creation through atmospheric ionization.
Additional data gathered by the UAS uses LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) measurements. ODOT has previously used several LiDAR capturing devices in roadway analysis: terrestrial (or land stationary devices); airborne (typically by helicopter, as opposed to UAS); and mobile (a device mounted to a vehicle). LiDAR can be used for topographic mapping, and in determining pavement and roadway integrity.
Studies by ODOT note that airborne LiDAR data might not be accurate and dense enough for evaluating pavement smoothness, unless obtained from a low-flying helicopter. This is where the UAS technology may have advantages over more expensive helicopter or aircraft mounted LiDAR. The type of drone flown in the French Prairie test is compact enough to fly at a low elevation, and nimbly navigates through both ecologically sensitive environmental protection zones and highly populated urban areas.
Oregon Travel Experience (OTE) was happy to host the recent UAS test flight. The French Prairie team made sure the grounds were free of debris and that visitors and attendees were safe during the event. A long-term parking area adjacent to the solar array was closed briefly while the drone performed its flights. OTE is proud of our partnership with ODOT and we look forward to sharing French Prairie with thousands of motorists this summer. The next time you’re traveling to Portland or other northern points, stop at French Prairie and make your way to the back parking lot. Interpretive signs and walking paths mark the Baldock Solar Highway as an educational and fascinating sight you may not want to miss.