In a first, the Japanese firm can fly BVLOS autonomous drones at night

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In a first for Japan, renewable energy company afterFIT has received permission to fly autonomous drones beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) at night. Approval was granted by Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

afterFIT uses drones to carry out inspections at its 1,924 kW solar power plant in Tochigi prefecture. The drones, however, are operated from the company’s headquarters in Tokyo, about 200 km away.

To enable these BVLOS drone inspections, afterFIT uses a modular system including DJI drones, a low-cost docking station and FlytNow Auto software from drone autonomy specialist FlytBase.

Explaining how the missions are conducted, afterFIT says it configures the drone to fly autonomously along a pre-determined route programmed on FlytNow, inspects the solar panels and live streams the infrared video stream and images to the command center. Each round of inspection lasts approximately 20 minutes. Following data collection, an AI system generates anomaly reports for the power plant.

afterFIT says deploying drones has allowed it to reduce the time it takes to inspect a MW from three hours to less than 10 minutes. Additionally, the use of a drone docking station has also allowed the company to increase the frequency of inspections. Solar power plants that were previously only inspected once a year are now being examined more frequently for damage and defects.

In addition to automating routine solar panel inspections, afterFIT also uses autonomous drones for several other purposes:

  • Security monitoring: To achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, the Japanese government has proposed doubling the number of solar farms. One of the effects of this is that the price of copper wire has increased, as have cases of copper wire theft. So when necessary, the drone flies towards a suspected anomaly and alerts both management and any potential intruder. With the new BVLOS night operations waiver, afterFIT would be able to further enhance the security of the premises.
  • Reduce workforce involvement: To compensate for the aging of the Japanese population, which has led to a significant shortage of qualified personnel, labor saving measures have become necessary. And autonomous drones have emerged as the ideal solution in this scenario.
  • Cost savings: afterFIT says it has already invested heavily in transporting teams to and from power plant sites. But with autonomous drones helping with both routine maintenance and early fault detection, operational costs have been reduced.

Read more: Skydio’s secret recipe for making drones smarter and faster is now public


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