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Drones may prove particularly useful at detecting malfunctioning solar panels, which generate a distinctive heat signature as they fail.

Drones from Skycatch and more established companies are monitoring power lines, inspecting oil and gas pipelines, checking wind turbines for defects and pinpointing malfunctioning solar panels.

Skycatch drones are designed to operate autonomously. When a drone completes a mission, it flies back to a ground station, a 100-pound, 2-by-2-foot box with a circular opening on top. As the drone nears, guided by its camera, the Global Positioning System and a sonar sensor, the ground station uses its own sensors and a radio signal to guide the approach.

Once the drone has landed, a robotic arm removes the battery, which also stores 15 gigabytes of data, and replaces it with a fresh one from a 10-battery carousel. The data then are beamed up to Box, a cloud computing service.

Skycatch is a year-old start-up based in San Francisco that has raised $3.2 million from Google and other investors. The company already has signed deals to test its technology with the construction giants Bechtel and DPR; First Solar, a developer of photovoltaic power plants; and SolarCity, a solar panel installer.

Image courtesy of The New York Times/Christian Sanz/Skycatch.

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