Drones used as sentinels of photovoltaic plants

August 11, 2014

There is a new monitoring system for photovoltaic installations based on the use of light remote-controlled aircraft: drones.

This new system is the result of the work of a research team from the Milan Politecnico University, which has recently been awarded with publication on the prestigious IEEF (Journal of Photovoltaics).

The team is made of Francesco Grimaccia, Marco Mussetta, Alberto Dolara and Sonia Leva, all engineers (mechanical and electrical) with a PhD in electrical engineering and teaching at the Faculty of Energy. Mohammadreza Aghaei, a young engineer and PhD student, has joined the group more recently.

The idea is simple: drones have various sensors, specifically cameras, thermographic cameras or optical sensors, and, while flying over photovoltaic modules of all types and sizes, they offer timely and reliable monitoring in a quick, accurate, efficient, secure and versatile way.

This is a true innovation in this sector because, as researchers explain, for photovoltaic systems monitoring there are no consolidated applications that use UAVs (or drones) with advanced and multifunctional sensors.

The research team is collaborating with Nimbus, a Turin based company active in the field of unmanned/autopilot aircrafts and that has already won several Flight Permissions by the regulatory authority ENAC.

The added value of the system is the possibility of using different sensors simultaneously and of combining them, depending on the need, for a correct and rapid identification of the damage or other failures.

Photovoltaic modules are in fact key components of photovoltaic systems because they are responsible for the conversion of solar radiation into electricity. A good monitoring activity of the module is therefore crucial for a timely and effective maintenance of the system, in order to obtain the best possible performance and better plan extra maintenance activities or any revamping of the installation.

Any failure in photovoltaic modules may be visible with naked eye, such as delamination, blisters, cracking, yellowing, misalignment, corrosion and oxidation. These damages can be easily detected with a camera /video and are often due to adverse environmental conditions such as salt, hail, snow, dust, corrosive gases.

Other failures are manufacturing defects such as “snail slime” and microcracking. These defects are those which most affect the performance of a plant and can be better inspected with optical advanced sensors and thermal cameras.

The system so far has been tested on various installations: at the Italian Piedmont region on shelters (200kWp), at the Emilia Romagna region on the ground (3MWp), and last, but not least, at the Solar Tech lab at the Politecnico University of Milan. Thanks to the combined use of sensors in the visible and infrared scope, it was possible to quickly and effectively identify some flaws in the modules. The results are very promising both from a technical point of view and potential market opportunities. Regarding possible overseas exportation of this made ​​in Italy methodology, researchers explain that, although it could be viable, regulation of UAVs is still on a national basis; therefore, specific country conditions will have to be considered.

This article was originally published in Italian on Now How, a sustainability web magazine powered by Stantec in Italy.


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