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Improving Access to 3D Data for Better Solar Design: Aurora and Google

Posted by Matt Stevens on Jul 5, 2019 8:40:38 PM

Remote solar design would not be possible without good map data. Map data helps answer basic questions like how many panels can fit on a roof, as well as more complex issues like which areas of the roof are shaded and at what time of day. Aurora has always tried to give our users access to the best possible data, including HD Imagery from Nearmap and our repository of LIDAR data.

In that spirit, Aurora recently announced that we are partnering with Google's Project Sunroof to bring better 3D and imagery data to our users. This partnership will get high quality map data into the hands of more solar installers so that designing solar becomes faster, easier, and more accurate in many regions across the US and even across the globe.

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Project Sunroof uses Google's huge repository of 3D map data to analyze the solar potential of millions of roofs. Their data covers over half of US households, and many cities across the world. Curious homeowners can go to the Project Sunroof website and check the solar potential of their roofs. Local governments can also use their data explorer to look at solar potential on a city scale so they can plan for things like grid management and incentives.

This partnership will get high quality map data into the hands of more solar installers so that designing solar becomes faster, easier, and more accurate in many regions across the US and even across the globe.
Google Project Sunroof logo
An estimate of solar capacity in Manhattan, courtesy of Project Sunroof.An estimate of solar capacity in Manhattan, courtesy of Project Sunroof.

With this new partnership, installers will be able to combine Google's 3D map data with Aurora's CAD, shading, performance simulation and financial analysis engine. This will combine the global reach of Google's data with the accuracy of designing a solar installation in Aurora. This will make installers' jobs easier, and in turn help bring solar to more homes across the country.

A sample of the Google 3D data available in Aurora Solar for solar design.A sample of the Google 3D data available in Aurora.
Aurora users can continue to access our wide coverage of LIDAR in the US, but will now also get access to 3D data through Project Sunroof in new locations such as Reno, Phoenix, California's Central Valley, and Chicago—as well as worldwide locations such as Paris, London, Tokyo, and Berlin.

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How Google Captures Data Using Photogrammetry

You may be wondering where all of this data comes from. Google uses planes equipped with custom cameras to fly over cities and capture images from many different angles. The planes capture images from 5 different angles: straight down, forward, back, right, and left. Then proprietary algorithms combine all of these images together into a 3D model. This process is called photogrammetry, from the word photograph and the suffix -ometry, meaning to measure.

An illustration of how photogrammetry 3D data is gathered with planes.An illustration of how multiple camera angles can be used to locate points in 3D.

These photogrammetry algorithms work by looking for similar points across multiple images, for example the peak of a roof, or the end of a driveway. By combining the location of the airplane when it took the picture and where the point appears in the photo, you can figure out the actual location of the point in 3D.

Doing these calculations for a single point requires just some basic algebra. Doing it for millions of points and thousands of images across a city, on the other hand, requires sophisticated algorithms and a substantial amount of computing power. When the processing is finished, you get a full city-scale 3D model.

The final step is to add color. Fortunately, since the 3D model was generated from photos, you can get pixel-perfect alignment of the photo to the 3D scan, and you can “paint” the 3D model patch by patch with color data taken from the images, producing the full-color 3D scans that you can see in Google Maps, Google Earth, and now Aurora.

A 3D model of Aurora Solar's neighborhood of San Francisco, courtesy of Google Maps.A 3D model of Aurora's neighborhood of San Francisco, courtesy of Google Maps.

Photogrammetry differs from LIDAR data in several key ways, including offering a number of advantages. Photogrammetry often allows you to see smaller details because pixels are closer together than points are in a LIDAR point cloud.

Additionally, photogrammetry camera equipment is cheaper than LIDAR sensors. And even if you have existing LIDAR data, for purposes like solar design, imagery is still needed on top of it, which adds to the cost. When you are trying to operate at a global scale, these cost savings add up and make it easier to expand into more markets.

Furthermore, advances in photogrammetry tend to come from algorithms while advances in LIDAR tend to come from better sensors. This fits in well with the philosophy of running smart algorithms on cheap hardware that Google used to be famous for.

However, LIDAR still has some advantages. The 3D measurements taken from LIDAR data are more accurate because the distance from the airplane is physically measured instead of inferred. It often takes less computational power to process as well because the data starts out in 3D, closer to the final format.

Fortunately at Aurora, there is no need to pick which technique is better—both data sources will exist side by side in our software. Aurora users can continue to access our wide coverage of LIDAR in the US, but will now also get access to 3D data through Project Sunroof in new locations such as Reno, Phoenix, California's Central Valley, and Chicago—as well as worldwide locations such as Paris, London, Tokyo, and Berlin.

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Topics: solar design, technology, imagery

How HD Imagery Strengthens Solar Design: An Interview with Nearmap CEO Rob Newman

Posted by Gwen Brown on Apr 18, 2018 10:38:27 AM

Here at Aurora, we’re a bit obsessed with how technology can improve the work of solar installers. From reducing site visits through remote solar design to ensuring accurate energy production estimates, we’re all about tools to help solar businesses overcome barriers and lower costs.

The foundation of any good solar design is some sort of georeferenced image. Whether it comes from satellites, drones, a new construction blueprint overlaid on a map, or a low-flying plane, Aurora’s solar design and sales process starts with imagery. That is why we are thrilled to announce a brand new partnership with Nearmap, a leading aerial imagery provider operating in the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand. Nearmap is the 2017 Award Winner of the Esri Partner Conference Best New Content Partner.

In our unique configuration, Aurora customers can now access high-definition Nearmap images directly in our application by purchasing bundles or by linking Aurora with a Nearmap account.

To highlight what this means for solar companies, we spoke with Dr. Rob Newman, CEO of Nearmap.

Rob-Newman-headshot-resizedDr. Rob Newman, CEO of Nearmap.

An engineer by training, Dr. Newman has a unique track record as a successful technology entrepreneur in both Australia and Silicon Valley. He founded two technology companies that successfully entered overseas markets with a combined market value of over $200M. Prior to joining Nearmap, Dr. Newman spent ten years as a venture capitalist, co-founding Stone Ridge Ventures, where he focused on identifying disruptive technologies with global potential.

For those who aren’t familiar with Nearmap, what does Nearmap do and why are your services important for solar companies?

What Nearmap does is capture the truth on the ground. So, what does that mean? We have camera systems in planes flying over approximately 400 cities in the U.S. capturing highly accurate aerial imagery. You can think of that aerial imagery as “satellite imagery on steroids.” 

For a solar company, if you're developing a quote or planning an installation, the higher fidelity and clarity of the imagery you've got, the easier it is to determine things like what roof type it is, what obstructions are on the roof, and whether there are trees nearby.

The clearer and more up-to-date the imagery, the better it is for the company doing the design.  

Have you seen Nearmap’s imagery transform the work of solar companies? If so, can you share some insights into how?

Yes, in fact a big part of our business in the U.S., about 20%, is with solar companies. The reason that they're using our imagery, combined with tools like Aurora, is that it really does transform their work.

Often what we hear from solar companies is that they conduct several site visits in the process of quoting and planning a job. By having high-resolution, up-to-date aerial imagery you can remove many of those site visits. 

One of the most powerful examples we’ve heard of how that is transformative for solar companies is that it improves the likelihood of winning business. Imagine, for example, that you're on the phone with a potential customer and they say they’re interested in a 5 kilowatt system. If you say, "I'll come out in three days to look at your roof," in the meantime, that customer may get cold feet and call another company.

In contrast, if you've got high-resolution imagery in front of you, you can give them an accurate quote over the phone.

Catching the customer at that first point of inquiry and having accurate imagery on hand really improves the likelihood you're going to win their business.   

You mentioned that you can think of Nearmap as "satellite imagery on steroids." Can you share some of the features of Nearmap imagery you’re most proud of?

When we talk about what differentiates Nearmap imagery, we highlight our "4 Cs": Clarity, Currency, Change, and Consistency. So what do those mean?

Clarity is: “how clear is the imagery?” In terms of the amount of data you see around a particular site, Nearmap imagery is much clearer. That clarity makes a big difference, for instance, when installers are trying to figure out if there is a vent on the roof or if it’s just a shadow.

The next one is how current the imagery is; we're flying very regularly over all the major cities in the U.S. That means if we offer imagery in your area, you've got an up-to-date image. [Editor’s note: In Aurora you can see the actual day of capture.]  

This frequency is also useful for seeing change over time. You can look back and see the site in different seasons with leaves on and leaves off. If there are features that are hard to see in one picture because of foliage, you can look at another picture to get the detail you need and see the change over time because we capture imagery multiple times per year. 

Last is consistency. We always deliver our imagery at the same high-resolution. Other services out there have what one of my colleagues calls a "patchwork quilt." There is different imagery quality in different areas, whereas with Nearmap it’s always the same consistent quality. 

Those 4 Cs all matter when you're relying on accurate imagery to develop your quotes and run your solar business. And here’s one more for you—cloud-based; Nearmap imagery is instantly accessible in the cloud.  

With your extensive experience as a technology entrepreneur, what are the markers you look for when determining if a technology has the potential to transform an industry? How does that inform your perspective on Nearmap’s potential impacts for the solar industry?

That's a really good question. A few years ago, when I was still a venture capitalist, I conducted a retrospective review of every investment or company I had ever been involved with and looked at all the factors that drove success. 

I found that there are two factors that stand way above everything else: Does the product provide a times ten transformation for the customer? And, is the management team strong? Those two things determine, almost exclusively, the success of a company. 

In terms of the times ten transformation, a lot of companies provide technology breakthroughs but if those breakthroughs aren't relevant to the customer then it doesn't matter. I'm always looking for that times ten value add for the customer’s workflow.

In the case of Nearmap and Aurora, taking the quoting process from days down to hours and enabling greater accuracy—that's a transformation that makes a significant difference to our solar company customers.

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Topics: imagery

How LIDAR is Transforming Remote Solar System Design

Posted by Samuel Adeyemo on Sep 22, 2016 12:00:00 AM

What do self-driving cars, the Mars rover and remote solar site assessment have in common?

All three technologies use Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) data to quickly and accurately assess the environment in which they perform their operations. Since the 1960s when LIDAR was first used by NASA scientists for research purposes, it has quickly captured the imagination of professionals that want to remotely make precise measurements or three-dimensional models of an area.

Over the last 15 years, technological improvements and cost reductions have greatly increased the accessibility of LIDAR data, which is having a beneficial effect on the solar industry.

How LIDAR data is gathered

LIDAR scanners emit pulses of light energy (using a laser) at buildings and other objects in an area, and measure how long it takes for the pulse to return. The laser pulse travels at the speed of light. Accordingly, the distance it travels can be calculated by multiplying the amount of time it takes for the pulse to arrive back at the scanner, with the speed of light, and dividing that figure by two (since the pulse makes a round trip).

In the case of solar, the LIDAR scanner is typically fitted on a plane, which also contains a global positioning system (GPS) and an inertial measurement unit (IMU). The GPS unit measures the elevation, and the location (latitude and longitude) of the plane. The IMU measures the tilt and other data about the plane and scanner position in order to adjust the distance calculations.

LIDAR airplane Illustration of LIDAR capture. Source:

How LIDAR data is used

Combining location and distance LIDAR data recorded by the scanner, software packages can generate a 3D model of the location. In the case of a self-driving car or the Mars rover , the vehicle uses this 3D LIDAR model to autonomously navigate without colliding with any obstacles.

In the context of solar, 3D LIDAR models can be used to calculate building heights, roof slopes, and tree heights. LIDAR data is also used to calculate how much irradiance (sunlight) and shading is cast on a rooftop by objects such as trees, chimneys and buildings. By combining the resulting 3D LIDAR model with local weather data, software applications can calculate irradiance and shade metrics, such as solar access and total solar resource factor (TSRF) values.

LIDAR in AuroraLIDAR can be used to generate a 3D model of a house.

How accurate is LIDAR modeling?

Aurora LIDAR shading values have been proven by the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) to be statistically equivalent to onsite measurements. An NREL study funded by the US Department of Energy (DOE) found that remote shading engines that implemented LIDAR were within 3.5% of on-site measurements.

On the basis of the NREL study, and their own independent assessments, several financing entities and rebate authorities such as the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency (the United States’ largest rebate authority) now accept Aurora's Shading Reports in lieu of on-site measurements.

The bottom line: LIDAR makes solar quicker and cheaper

According to the DOE, the customer acquisition cost for a typical 5kW residential system is $1,100. This is largely due to costs associated with site visits, wasting time and money by marketing to homes that are not a good fit for solar, and educating the homeowner about the economic benefits of them going solar.

LIDAR modeling helps address many of these problems. Sites can quickly be identified and screened for their solar potential. Accurate system design and bankable shade reports can be generated remotely. The homeowner can easily see how much irradiance their roof receives, making it easy for installers to explain their solar design decisions. Most importantly, LIDAR modeling can be performed quickly: a remote shade report takes less than 15 minutes to generate. See how to use it in Aurora. 

Integrating LIDAR into the solar design process offers the prospect of faster and cheaper solar, without a meaningful loss in accuracy. NREL estimates that remote site assessment has the potential to reduce industry soft costs by $0.17/W. To put that in context, remote site assessment could save you the equivalent of half the cost of an average string inverter.

The land area covered by LIDAR is constantly increasing, and as the technology finds more commercial applications, the cost of acquiring LIDAR is falling. This is good news for the solar industry. LIDAR based remote site assessment provides an accessible mechanism to dramatically lower the soft costs of the industry.

Topics: imagery, Technologies Transforming PV Design

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