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.
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.
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.
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.
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.