Technology Edge

Using robots and drones for efficient solar O&M

Artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and computer vision (CV) are gradually occupying room in the renewable energy generation space. The deployment of these modern te­chnologies alongside ro­bots and drones plays a significant role in the operations and maintenance (O&M) of renewable energy par­ks. With the help of these advanced automated technologies, the landscape of field inspections and monitoring of renewable energy projects is changing for good.

The application of AI and CV in solar monitoring is an emerging concept. Solar farm operators have historically used a team of workers to manually inspect solar panels for faults. However, this procedure is time-consuming, costly and not always reliable. Moreover, it cannot be performed on a daily basis for the entire solar park – the­se parks are often spread across several acres, making manual monitoring a cumbersome and inefficient task. Thus, solar farm operators are switching to au­toma­ted solutions in the form of robots and drones, which are often powered by AI, to sp­eed up their O&M processes and improve cost efficiency.

Drones

The market for small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS), commonly known as dro­­nes, is expanding progressively. A re­search report by global technology intelligence firm ABI Research predicts that the total global shipment of sUAS ecosystems will reach 3 million by 2025. Because solar panels are prone to manufacturing defects and mechanical damage, regular inspections are critical at so­lar farms to minimise po­wer loss and ma­in­tain performance. It is crucial to detect such flaws as soon as possible in order to correct them and avoid breaks in energy production. The traditional ins­pec­tion method of walking through the solar farm with handheld cameras and other inspection devices is inefficient and time-consuming. Drone inspection can be completed in a matter of hours, thus saving a lot of time and providing more efficient monitoring of fields. This involves the use of algorithms that can ascertain solar panel defects through automatically generated images.

Images captured by a sUAS can be analysed by an algorithm in the cloud. The results can point the quality contro­ller to the solar panels with visible fau­lts. Drones can also be used to survey the entire field prior to the development of a solar park, thus aiding the design and construction of the park. The devices can fly over the field to help with the mapping of solar panel blocks, inverters and other components.

Robots

During O&M, unmanned cleaning machi­n­es are often deployed to cover for hu­man discrepancies. Robotic technologies help in maximising performance and improving reliability under extreme weather conditi­ons. These machines help in re­ducing the costs and time needed for cleaning so­lar panels. Operators require an efficient me­thod for cleaning the endless rows of pa­nels, and robots are ideal for the job. Many start-ups are developing robotic cleaners aimed at increasing energy production while decreasing cleaning costs. In some advanced cases, drones are in charge of bringing the automated, water-free robots to the solar field, and brin­ging them back once their cleaning job is done. Mean­while, in some cases, AI-enabled robots are being deployed to carry out monitoring activities at project sites. Robots are also being used for tas­ks such as handling of equipment on site, and managing vegetation.

Recent developments

An increase in technology-led investme­nts by renewable power companies can help in boosting the capacity generated by solar parks. For instance, the Uni­versity of York’s Robotics Research Cen­tre was awarded GBP 1.5 million to build a solar farm in May 2022. This will allow researchers to develop and deploy robots for inspecting and maintaining solar far­ms. Similarly, in February 2022, H3 Dyna­mi­cs collaborated with Sitemark, a Bel­gi­an AI analytics company, to create an au­tonomous solar farm monitoring sol­u­tion. It combines H3 Dynamics’s drone-in-a-box (DBX) robots with Sitemark’s vis­u­­al and thermal analytics to automate remote monitoring operations in large-scale solar farms. DBX can be permanently installed at solar farms to track construction pro­gress, detect solar panel degradation and provide on-site security.

Outlook

Remote monitoring and O&M of solar par­ks are major requirements for enab­ling hassle-free power generation. Imp­ro­ving efficiency and lowering costs are important to remain competitive in the industry. Technological companies and solar operators are collaborating in various ways to create digital and automati­on platforms for the development, cons­truction and op­e­ra­tion of utility-scale pho­tovoltaic power plants.

Going forward, investing in research and development in the field can help bring about more cost-effective and region-specific technologies.

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