Delta Drone International agricultural affiliate RocketFarm has successfully completed a drone-driven survey and repair mission of a concentrated solar power plant (CSP) – a feat it says is the first in Africa, and perhaps the entire world.
RocketFarm, which calls itself the leading agricultural drone data service provider in Africa, recently carried out the survey for a client operating the CSP facility. Those plants use vast rows of reflecting surfaces to transform captured sun rays into high-temperature heat. That is then used to power a motor on a generator that creates electricity. Given the size of those installations, manual checks are long and laborious, which is why drone surveys seemed logical – but as RocketFarm learned, tricky to perform.
In fact, according to RocketFarm officials, the company had to take everything it had learned in its seven years of agricultural drone services operations and rework it to the challenges the CSP plant posed.
Because unlike crops RocketFarm pilots usually survey, panels on the CSP move to follow the sun, making accurate tracking complicated as mission time extends and components shift. Meantime, mirrors used to intensify the sun’s heat often give off false readings if the drone’s thermal and RGB sensor sees the ground or blue sky reflecting from them rather than glinting rays.
To deal with those problems, RocketFarm experts decided to retool the experience and tech at their disposal and come up with a – literally – different angle of surveying work.
The first step in that was a major cramming session of coding to be able to re-write their artificial intelligence detection capabilities. The team then figured out the precise altitudes and approaches the drone needed to fly to be able to correctly and consistently identify broken mirrors and defective heat elements.
With that information in hand, says project leader Zander Van Pletzen, data collected by the drone allowed surveyors to provide the CSP client with required maintenance steps, and insights into future performance and optimization methods.
“With no existing guide, RocketFarm’s survey and data acquisition involved our crew flying a sample of the site at different angles, heights, and speeds to conduct the survey and collect the data,” Van Pletzen explains. “(Being) equipped with a multi-spectrum sensor provided the team with multiple points of data to analyze… Interpretation of the data and analysis for the CSP plant owners and stakeholders has been a complex and insightful undertaking that will provide long-standing benefits in maintenance, profitability, and possibly greater uptake of CSP plants.”
Rocketfarm’s CSP surveying breakthrough is no small matter as companies – and entire countries – seek to develop renewable energy resources and reduce their use of fossil fuels.
In contrast to more traditional photovoltaic approaches, CSPs can both store energy and dispatch it to users on demand, a capacity making it more like a geothermal power plant. Because of its dual functionality and effectiveness in generating electricity, the technology is spreading rapidly – especially in deserts, arid environments, and other sun-exposed locales that otherwise go mostly unused.
“These concentrated solar power plants cost billions to build, and only the most experienced pilots with specialist expertise in agriculture could code the complex algorithms required for this project,” says Delta Drone International CEO, Christopher Clark. “This groundbreaking survey is no doubt set to transform the global energy sector for years to come.”
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