How can we automate maintenance operations systems in solar plants to make harnessing renewable energy more efficient?
A2A, the Seeker of this Challenge, is looking to automate more of the maintenance operations related to the correct functioning of solar photovoltaic (PV) plants. Solvers are asked to create a detailed document about your plans or inform A2A about a system capable of bringing together as many maintenance operations as possible – including both extended and detail operations.
With a view to continuing to improve the overall efficiency of A2A’s PV plants, this Challenge asks Solvers to design a layout that will leverage a combination of hardware and software to create an automatic/autonomous system or platform capable of minimizing manual intervention, to become more cost-effective and reliable.
This is a Prize Challenge which requires a written proposal to be submitted. Awards will be contingent upon the theoretical evaluation of the proposal by A2A. For this Prize Challenge, Solvers are required to transfer all rights to the Intellectual Property (IP) in their proposed solution, to be awarded. A2A is willing to consider non-exclusive IP rights for a partial award.
The A2A Group is the largest Italian multi-utility, at the forefront of territorial services and technological solutions. We design smart and sustainable cities, with respect for the citizens, we are protagonists of energy transition, and we implement the principle of the circular economy in all our activities. With a far-reaching strategic plan, we manage the generation, sale and distribution of electricity and gas, district heating, waste collection and recovery, e-mobility, public lighting, and the integrated water services.
Employees of A2A are ineligible to receive an award for this Challenge.
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By leveraging cutting-edge technology, A2A seeks to optimize its operational efficiency and minimize manual intervention, thus increasing productivity and ensuring long-term competitiveness in the solar energy sector.
To improve the efficiency and maintenance of solar power plants, several solutions have been tested in recent years that rely on artificial intelligence-related technologies, such as thermal image analysis and automatic solution for PV panel cleaning. The combined use of these technologies makes it possible to greatly improve energy production and minimize losses.
Today, maintenance typically involves the use of field operators who manually work on various assets within the solar plant’s systems in order to visually verify the integrity of the various components and proceed with their replacement in the event of a breakdown or scheduled maintenance.
Typical scheduled maintenance operations on systems in PV plants can be classified as:
- “Extended Operations”, in order to maximize the global efficiency of the solar panels across the plant.
- “Detail Operations”, concerning the verification and possible replacement of components (typically electrical or electro-mechanical) within one element or component, with the aim of guaranteeing the correct functioning of the system.
Software platforms are already used within maintenance cycles, allowing for the analysis of thermal images that verify the correct functioning of solar panels (via images acquired using drones or aircraft). In this way it is therefore possible to intervene – preventively – if anomalies are detected on the panels, keeping track of and improving the overall efficiency of the system. In other areas, solutions are already being tested to allow the panel cleaning and vegetation cutting operations to be automated.
For “detail operations”, there are no specific software or hardware support tools, and it is the task of the operator in the field to provide correct maintenance based on what the system component supplier (OEM) prescribes.
Below are some brief considerations regarding the main operations to-date, with a specific focus on “Detail Operations” tasks as they are the main interest of this Challenge:
- Cleaning of each PV panel
- Cutting of vegetation
- Thermographic inspection operations
- Electrical panel integrity check: The purpose is to detect the presence of signs of external wear and check the mechanical connections on the structure of the electrical panel. Typically, these are solely visual operations.
- Visual inspection of general damage to the structures: Visual operations of the structures on which the panels rest or on which the electrical panel is installed, with the aim of detecting mechanical damage and signs of wear, electrical damage (e.g., burn marks), and presence of cables/electrical devices dangling and/or exposed.
- Checking bolt tightening: Especially following the strong presence of winds which cause strong oscillations in the structure and at least once a year these are checked using a torque wrench.
- Replacement of fuses and connectors inside the electrical panels: In case of a fault, it is necessary to replace the fuses by opening the electrical panel (in the absence of voltage), removing the faulty fuse, and inserting the new one.
- Complete replacement of a string inverter: Inverters have electromechanical components that are more prone to failure, while other components, such as capacitors, are subject to aging beyond their operational limits, thermal shock, and overloads. The replacement occurs within a time interval of 5-10 years; however, failures may occur that require entire replacement on a shorter timeline.
- Electrical transformer integrity check; Check connections to the earthing system and protection conductors; Checking terminals, tightening and electrical connections in the panel: These are typically visual operations but sometimes temperatures are also detected using thermal cameras. Anomalies could cause overheating of electrical components due to loosened connections, which can start fires.
- Checking the operation of electric motors (in case of solar plant with “tracker”): In the absence of faults where replacement of the entire motor is necessary, typically once a year grease is placed along the rack to ensure correct functioning.
In this Challenge, Solvers are asked to create a detailed document about your plans or inform A2A about a system capable of bringing together as many maintenance operations as possible – including both extended and detail operations.
This autonomous or automated layout would be capable of the planned extended and detail maintenance operations described in the Challenge section, and automatically detecting anomalies with the aim of minimizing manual intervention by field operators and autonomously supervising the various assets within the solar plant.
Solutions that solely describe autonomous approaches for extended operations (plant-wide maintenance) will not be considered for award in this Challenge.
However, solutions that propose autonomous approaches for detailed operations (specific elements/components) only will be considered by A2A, but for a partial award only.
SOLUTION REQUIREMENTS & ACCEPTANCE CRITERIA
To solve this Challenge, the Solvers are asked to develop a document that describes the layout and detailed characteristics of the proposed automated/autonomous system layout (including both software and hardware) for maintenance operations, along with its components, sensors and accessories.
This document could describe and fully detail:
- An integrated autonomous system that can perform as many extended operations and detail operations as possible
- An autonomous system that can perform as many detail operations as possible
For example, your document could detail a system that autonomously completes cleaning activities and replacement of internal parts (integrated example) OR an autonomous system for checking bolt tightening and visual inspection of damage (detail operations example); however, a system that solely cuts vegetation or cleans panels (only extended operations) would not be considered for award.
Regardless of the specific approach, all successful solutions should meet the following must-have Solution Requirements:
- Documented autonomous system layout that can perform as many Extended and Detail Operations as possible – or,
To create the highest value from automations in A2A photovoltaic plants, combining all maintenance operations – extended and detail operations as listed in the Challenge section, with a specific focus on detail operations – will give your solution the best chance of positive evaluation.
- Feasibility of system in multiple contexts
The system must be able to operate in open spaces, on unmanned terrain, and able to work according to operations scheduled by the operator.
- Autonomous correction of anomalies or alerting operators of their presence
The system must be able to operate as autonomously as possible, and if this is not possible, it must be able to alert the operator/control room indicating what anomaly has been detected and where.
- Automated or autonomous where possible, or remote-controlled
If the system is not capable of operating autonomously it must be able to be controlled remotely by an operator through a web interface using an internet connection.
Nice to have:
- Integration with other systems: the optimum scenario would be finding a solution integrated or integrable (as if it were an add-on layer) in a commercial autonomous platform that automatizes maintenance operations with more focus on detail operations.
- Reporting and data collection: in case it is necessary to develop a software system for the collection of data from the operation of the hardware system, the user must be able to have access to the data and be able to download them via a web interface remotely and have the possibility to create reports.
- Accessibility and ease of use: in case your solution involves developing an “autonomous mobile robot (AMR)”, the control system of the robot must be based on the “ROS” standard and have the possibility to schedule operations according to the user’s needs.
- API Integration: in case it is necessary to develop a software system for the collection of data necessary for the operation of the autonomous system, provide libraries of services that can be used via API so that it is possible to integrate the system with current software used to track maintenance operations.
Things to avoid:
A2A has trialed and researched autonomous solutions that can automate many extended operations across the plant, so in this Challenge they are solely looking for integrated (extended and detail operations) solutions or solutions that can complete as many detail operations as possible.
Solvers should also note that software-only platforms with the purpose to provide analytics of solar plants (e.g., efficiency and general performance of the plant; RGB and/or thermal image analysis; analysis of digitized plant assets; etc.) will not be considered for award in this Challenge.
A2A will only consider for award systems that can integrate hardware and software components, in order to make the most of efficiency and cost savings through automation/autonomous processes.
Solutions with Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) 3-9 are invited.