Setting the technical art of the possible is what Above does, said Will Hitchcock, who founded the Essex-based aerial inspection services and software business eight years ago.

Above’s “big prize for 2024” is its autonomous pre-programmed Drone in a Box service, which it has been prototyping and developing for the past 18 months.

With 80% of solar maintenance and management costs relating to humans, robotic solutions will remove barriers to growth, Will said. Drone in a Box is “essentially a flying camera with a thermal sensor” that carried out its proof of concept with Octopus Energy.

The drone is located at solar parks and can be controlled from anywhere. A remote pilot signals its IP65-compliant box to open, the drone takes off, completes its monitoring missions then uploads its captured data when it returns to the box, where it recharges after the box closes.

Above was the first company to demonstrate flying a drone remotely, responding to an electrical fault and security incursion at a solar farm in Reading, and piloting it from the Above office more than 110 miles away in Colchester.

The Drone in a Box offers so much more potential to the solar industry than piloted drones, said Will.

“It can become much more integrated into the rest of the plant-monitoring systems and displaces laborious human activities, and therefore can start to eat away at that 80% figure.”

Eastern Daily Press: Will Hitchcock, founder of AboveWill Hitchcock, founder of Above (Image: Above)

The combined ambition of the global solar industry is to grow five-fold in the next six years. With the current MW-to-human ratio sitting at just over three, the industry desperately needs to start doing more MWs per human.

“Above is at the heart of the much-needed digital and robotic transition the utility-scale solar industry is undergoing, providing services that allow component and asset condition monitoring, at scale, thus enabling the smarter use of humans.”

Above launched its Autonomous Drone Lab last year, and six global solar companies, from utilities and independent power producers to operations and maintenance, are trialling and experimenting with the drone and data capture techniques, data processing and data reporting with the team at its test site in Boxted, Essex.

“These players in the lab are an indicator of the expected impact of this technology in the context of their businesses, so it’s good validation of what we are doing. We aim to bring our first early products to market this year.”

Leading the deployment of new technology, Above has grown by 50-60% a year. “The technology is coming and is going to be transformational and disruptive. There is no time to stand still in this sector. If your business plan doesn’t have a strategy for doing more with less, then you will get left behind.”