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Extensive checking processes at industrial plants that typically takes a month or two can be compressed into days with drones and supporting software tools. Image Credit: Supplied

Investments in clean energy have naturally increased as part of the Net Zero goals by 2050. The Middle East - with its abundant access to sunlight - is embracing solar power, mainly through photovoltaic (PV) plants.

As per data from Mordor Intelligence, solar PV installed capacity in the Middle East grew from 9.239GW in 2021 to 12.440GW in 2022.

The most critical component in any solar PV plant is the solar panels, and although built to high standards, over time their operational efficiency will reduce. The German Fraunhofer Institute revealed that PID (Potential Induced Degradation) can cause solar farms to lose upwards of 30 per cent of their production capacity. Other issues can also impact the panels’ efficiency, including cracks in the solar cells or the glass; contact and/or module failures; dirt and sand build-up, and more.

These can be addressed through routine inspections and maintenance. However, the traditional method of inspection - using engineers to check every panel manually and with thermal sensors - is extremely slow, expensive, and labour-intensive.

Depending on the amount of energy a solar plant is expected to generate, its configuration and scale will vary.

The inspection and maintenance of large facilities using manual labour could take months, and would require significant investment. In addition, these inspections could be hazardous to engineers’ health, with the sun bearing down from above, whilst also having to cope with the reflection of the sunlight from the panels themselves.

Once the field data has been collected, it then needs to be organised and analysed to identify where maintenance work is needed. This manual process is also subject to human error, all of which ultimately means there could be significant periods where the solar farm’s overall output and efficiency is negatively impacted.

Drones and AI

Manual inspection challenges can all be avoided today through the use of drones and AI. With the right combination of drones, sensors and AI software, solar plant operators can conduct thorough visual (thanks to 4K resolution pictures and video) and thermal inspections (with specialised sensors fitted to the drones) of large facilities in a matter of days.

By leveraging automation software such as Aerodyne’s vertikalitiSOLAR AI solution, all the captured data can be processed accurately.

This combination of technology will drastically speed up the overall inspection and maintenance process of solar plants, whilst offering better safety and significantly lower costs. Industry case studies have revealed an increase in efficiency of between 95-97 per cent when using drones rather than manual inspections on solar farms.

Our experience of inspecting one of the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park’s phases - 900,000 solar panels spread over 3.4 square kilometres - took five days. In the past, using traditional inspection methods, this procedure would have taken two months from start to finish. If an operator wants to scale up an existing solar farm or speed up inspections and maintenance, all that’s needed is the addition of drones and segmentation of the drones’ flight plans.

Simply put, by investing in drones and AI, it’s possible to ensure solar farms operate continuously at maximum efficiency.