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Drones with Pricey Cameras Help University Identify Energy Efficiency Projects

(Credit: UMass Lowell)

Drones equipped with infrared cameras can be used to create thermal maps that show where buildings or underground steam pipes are losing heat and costing organizations money and that can help identify energy efficiency projects. They could “potentially be a game-changer in terms of doing energy audits on a large, rapid scale,” says Christopher Niezrecki, Mechanical Engineering Professor and Department Chair at UMass Lowell. Faculty and student researchers from the university’s Department of Mechanical Engineering are working on a pilot project they say will help the university identify and prioritize cost-saving repairs and energy-efficiency projects on campus.

The project is being done as a collaboration between Facilities Management and the Rist Institute for Sustainability and Energy (RISE). The energy audit is done by a drone equipped with a $13,000 infrared camera; the drone replaces the planes that the facilities department used to hire to fly over campus and collect thermal images.

After reviewing the thermal maps, the researchers discovered noticeable heat loss coming from one of the campus’s buildings, as well as a “bright red spot” that indicated a potential underground steam pipe leak, according to an article in the university online magazine, ENews. “This could lead to some pretty great energy projects to tighten up our buildings,” says Dan Abrahamson, the university’s energy manager. Abrahamson says the thermal images can also show overheating electrical equipment, such as generators, that need maintenance.

UMass Lowell has invested in a number of other initiatives to increase energy efficiency across its campus. In 2020, the university and National Grid formed a partnership that dedicates more than $500,000 in incentives for campus projects that help save electricity and natural gas. These have included doubling the number of electric vehicle charging stations on campus and increasing incentives for energy-efficiency infrastructure projects.

The partnership with National Grid is also helping the university reduce its annual utility bill while improving operations and reducing maintenance costs. “The incentives are a big pull for us, but National Grid is also providing valuable administrative and engineering support,” says Abrahamson.

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