John Novak says he wants to see solar panels on every roof in the world. That may never happen, but that hasn’t stopped him from trying to make it easier to install the equipment. Novak is the chief executive officer of Scanifly, a Hightstown-based business-to-business 3D-modelling software company that uses drone imagery to automate the solar surveying and design process.
Scanifly works with solar power companies that fly drones at their project sites, taking pictures of properties of homeowners considering the installation of solar panels. The drones eliminate the dangerous necessity of climbing a ladder and provide actual images of work sites, rather than handwritten descriptions.
Jason Steinberg is the chief operating officer at Scanifly. Novak and Steinberg met at a 2017 solar networking event in Brooklyn. Steinberg explained that customers see value in spending money to have someone install solar panels on their roofs in that their investment will pay off over time. He said the benefits come in the form of accelerated depreciation, federal tax credits, state-level rebates, the convenience of generating power on-site and in lessening the impact on the environment.
“Solar jobs are one of the three fasting-growing industries in the country,” Steinberg said. “There are upward of 230,000 solar professionals in the U.S. The industry has grown significantly in the last 10 years.”
Novak said he started working in solar eight years ago as a system designer for a Somerset-based company called GEO Peak Energy. “I worked there for about three and a half years,” he said. “I got to experience pretty much everything on the engineering side of solar.”
He then moved on to NRG Energy. “I was designing mostly residential systems,” he explained. “During my career working at GEO Peak and working at NRG, I experienced all these challenges in solar firsthand: Hearing the pain points from my sales team.”
Scanifly grew out of his passion for the green energy business. “I envision a world that is powered by renewable energy and preserved by sustainable design,” he said.” I started the company to solve these challenges in solar and accelerate in sustainable design.”
Novak started Scanifly as a side project while he was working at NRG and began experimenting with drones. System designers need updated maps, which can be easily created using drone data, he said.
“When I was working at NRG, I was experimenting with drones,” Novak said. “The only way in my opinion to figure out how things work is to either take them apart and put them back together or build it from scratch. I built a drone from scratch, figured out how it works and I programmed it. I hacked into an XBox connect to 3D scan. I was able to prove the concept that you can create a three-dimensional map while flying.”
“You are not writing anything down by hand so there are time savings,” Steinberg said. “You are capturing imagery by drone. A surveying job on your home can go from the manual process of taking two to four hours and then becomes 12 to 14 minutes for the full survey. You can go from doing two to four projects per day as a solar company to up to 20 projects if the projects are near each other.”
The solar process
So where does Scanifly fit in the industry? When a consumer calls a solar company to inquire about panel installation, the company sends an employee to the potential customer and that person uses a drone to take aerial photographs of the roof. The solar company uploads the pictures to the Scanifly website. So Scanifly works directly with the solar companies, not homeowners.
Scanifly software then stitches the images together to make a 3D model that is a to-scale replica of the property, according to Novak and Steinberg. Then solar installers can design and analyze solar systems, again using Scanifly’s software.
“By having that granularity of detail in a 3D-build environment, you can get a much more updated map,” Steinberg said. “And you can do a lot more on the solar side as a result. We are creating 3D models of your house. [A solar company] logs into Scanifly’s software and they see your house in a beautiful 3D model.”
The software works with almost any type of drone. The only criteria is that the drone has to take geo-tagged images.
Steinberg and Novak said they are offering a three-step onboarding process to teach people how to fly a drone. And they are partnering with a drone pilot ground school, a national drone training curriculum to help people get drone pilot licenses. This process usually takes three to five weeks when studying part time. The school has a 90 percent pass rate.
Novak and Steinberg will help their customers choose which drone fits best. They usually recommend the DJI Phantom and Mavic Series. They note that for customers who do not want to fly a drone, there is a national network of pilots available for hire.
Some solar companies are already using drones for marketing purposes. Scanifly expands what the solar companies can do with the flyers.
“Yes, there is a challenge in integrating a drone into the solar industry yet people need to learn how to use them more,” Steinberg said.