Case Study: Connected Solar Panels

Solar farms rely on hundreds of synchronized panels to collect solar power and deliver it to the grid. In a perfect environment, panels are expected to last several years and provide peak performance. Reality is that panels will be exposed to all sorts of weather elements. Dust, moisture, and variable temperatures are some of the factors that will take a toll in the life of the panels. Therefore regular inspection and maintenance is not only to extend the life of the panels, but also keep the farm performing at its best. However, employing human personal to inspect the thousands of units can be both expensive and an arduous task.

Intelligent solar panels are equipped with sensors that record energy output and temperature while sharing the information with other panels. By exchanging data with neighboring panels, individual panels can evaluate their own performance. If a panel runs too hot, it can temporary shift position or run a cooling systems to avoid damage. If performance starts to degrade, the panel can request for maintenance from a robot. Autonomous robots will tend to the panel's inspection and maintenance. On-board cameras can scan for foreign elements and take adequate actions. Most of the time the task will be simple which the robot can take care of. If dust has accumulated and obstructing the panel, then the robot will proceed to clean. If major damage has been detected, then a human technician can be informed. Leaving automated activities for robots and delegating complex problem to humans is not only less expensive in the long term, but can also be more rewarding for the human operator.

Solar Farms are usually located in remote areas with limited communication. The cost and burden of setting up a wire connection for each site is often impractical. Instead wireless technologies can be used to connect all components together. For example solar panels operate with limited power, therefore a low power low data rate solution such as ZigBee is more adequate. Robots will carry a battery that last longer and requires larger data rates, therefore a WiFi solution better suits the task. Depending on the size of the solar farm, a cellular connection could handle the demand of exchanging information with the grid's command center.

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