Robotics expertise used to develop low-flying drone

  • Date

    Thu 10 Jun 21

Above drone

Essex computer scientists are helping to develop the next generation of robotic drone capable of finding faults on solar farms – the aim is to reduce maintenance costs and ultimately help keep down the cost of electricity for consumers.

Solar farms are critical to the UK’s energy supply and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but they need to be regularly inspected to make sure they are working to maximum efficiency.

Drones are often used for this, but current technology is not accurate enough to allow the close-up flying needed to detect some faults, so labour-intensive manual inspections are sometimes still needed.

A major challenge for the solar industry is reducing costs and increasing efficiency. The Follow PV project aims to achieve this using autonomous drones, robotics and artificial intelligence.

Computer scientists from the University of Essex and the University of Loughborough, will draw on the solar farm expertise of Above, a global leader in aerial inspection technology, to design a self-driving drone capable of flying close to the ground and following the rise and fall of solar panels on uneven terrain.

To do this accurately, the drone needs to be able to ‘see’ its environment and to understand and use this information to make tiny adjustments. This requires sensors on the drone and onboard artificial intelligence (AI), which can rapidly process and make in-flight corrections.

From Essex, Dr Jinya Su and Dr Xiaojun Zhai, from the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering, will be leading on the project. He explained: “Our role is to develop autonomous flying functions for drones so that high-quality aerial images can be collected above solar panels for their defect detection. This will be achieved by equipping UAV with dedicated sensors, and developing multi-source information fusion algorithms so that high-accuracy localisation of UAVs relative to the solar panels can be achieved. 

“We will also work with Above and Loughborough University to develop closed-up control systems based on the localisation information for its real-world applications.” 

Will Hitchcock, CEO of Above, which is based on the University’s Knowledge Gateway, said: “It’s clear that robotics is playing an increasingly important role in the solar industry, and it’s exciting that Above is continuing to lead the agenda.”

This is not the first time Above has worked with academics from Essex, as Rob Walker, Head of Business Engagement, explained: “It has been incredible to be part of Above's growth journey over the past four years and we are again delighted to be collaborating with them and our friends from Loughborough University. As a key occupant on our buzzing Knowledge Gateway and long-term project partner across various Innovate UK grants, we will be watching with a keen eye to see how our leading robotics expertise can further amplify Above's commercial offering.”

This latest project has been made possible thanks to funding from Innovate UK.