Opendata, web and dolomites


Teaser, summary, work performed and final results

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - CDRONE (Towards un-subsidised solar power – Cleandrone, the inspection and cleaning solution)


Solar electricity offers a clean alternative to carbon based energy sources, but its global uptake has been limited due to the comparatively high cost of energy generation. Although the cost of generation is consistently reducing through advances in manufacturing and panel...


Solar electricity offers a clean alternative to carbon based energy sources, but its global uptake has been limited due to the comparatively high cost of energy generation. Although the cost of generation is consistently reducing through advances in manufacturing and panel efficiencies, operational costs continue to prevent solar power plants from reaching true market competitiveness and stop them being able to operate without the need for subsidy.

One of the key practical cost inefficiencies occurs owing to a simple problem that is often taken for granted – dirt. Large scale solar installations comprise vast areas of panel surface which are subject to atmospheric and biological deposits. These deposits can reduce the generation efficiency of the solar power plant by up to 15% and also significant contribute to annual costs through the requirement of regular cleaning.

Current methods for cleaning and maintaining solar panels rely on significant amounts of labour sometime operating in inhospitable environments, which is slow and often damage the solar panels causing a reduction in output. Cleaning costs can account for more than 20% of annual O&M costs for a plant and in some areas of the planet are becoming more of a problem with the increase of dust owing to the changing climate. This is especially true for the growing CSP market which is highly sensitive to even minor soiling levels.

Cleandrone’s mission is to harness the intelligence of 3D robotics to reduce the costs and risks of high-specification surface cleaning and use this technology to enable zero-subsidy solar power throughout the EU and globally. The innovation objective is a complete robotic inspection and cleaning system that will clean glass surfaces autonomously and reduce the cost of solar energy by up to 2%.

The company forecasts rapid growth, reaching a turnover of €30m by 2020 with an associated 57 FTE employees to address the global PV market. In terms of additional, longer term objectives, there are a number of other potential applications for this technology. These include improving wind turbine efficiency through blade cleaning and maintaining glass surfaces in residential, commercial and industrial buildings which are designed to allow solar heat gain. However, in the first instance, the regimented and secure situation provided by a solar installation provides a suitable environment for commercialisation of the technology.

The innovation will enable solar power operators to take advantage of robotic technology to increase the competitiveness of solar power compared to other electricity sources. The system will autonomously and systematically clean the installation of solar panels, removing the need for expensive manual labour. As an additional function, whilst undertaking this activity the drones will monitor the thermal characteristics of the solar panels for electrical fault identification.

Work performed

Cleandrone has a working prototype of the product that is formed of a number of integrated core technologies; UAV hardware, autopilot, supervisory control system, cleaning head and thermal camera. These technologies have been integrated and field tested following an extensive programme of research and development.

The prototype system has demonstrated that the technology is able to fully autonomously clean solar panels. The supervisory control system is able to navigate the drone, identify the panel using visual recognition and then manoeuvre the drone by instructing the autopilot such that the cleaning head makes contact with the solar panel. Once contact has been achieved the cleaning system is activated and the drone executes a controlled descent whilst ensuring continuous contact with the panel using the pusher propellers. The operation is then repeated across the width of the solar panels and finally the drone returns to the landing position.

In terms of TRL, the core technology has been demonstrated in a relevant environment by successfully cleaning full scale solar panels with excellent results, but further work is required prior to the product being ready to launch in the market. Primarily this is in the form of pilot studies where a system of prototypes will be used to carry out cleaning of a whole array of panels, demonstrating the ability of the drones to work in groups around a pre-defined pattern of panels in a solar array.

On the commercial/marketing side, the company has greatly progressed in its market intelligence effort. Interviews with principal potential customers have been conducted from which a deep understanding of customer needs and expectations has been gathered.

Final results

Large scale solar plant operators need to reduce their cost of O&M whilst increasing the generation performance of their existing solar power assets. In addition, developers of new solar plant need to improve their cost of generation to eliminate the need for subsidies. The completion of the innovation project will enable customers to reduce their O&M costs and improve generation performance and help them to reduce their requirement for subsidy. Over 15 globally significant operators have expressed an interest in the product including Solar Reserve, SunEdison, Lightsource and Lark Energy who collectively represent over 6GW of solar in PV and CSP.
The main economic benefit that will make users buy the product is the 1.7% reduction in cost of generation which will directly increase their annual profit. This is more easily communicated to customers as Cleandrone offers clients €750 per MW per year savings on operation and maintenance (O&M). This represents a substantial saving in O&M costs for PV which are typically circa €7,000/MW/y for large scale systems. This saving is expected to be significantly higher for CSP which will be quantified as part of this feasibility. Our analysis indicates that a price point of just under €32,000 offers an attractive product when drone opex is considered. This will also be confirmed as part of the feasibility. Key USPs are expected to be: the versatility to work on any panel configuration, minimum user intervention, combining the inspection and cleaning functions, and no generation down time. Furthermore, the technology will considerably reduce consumption associated with cleaning which is a significant advantage in arid regions where water supply is valuable, whilst maintaining the efficacy associated with wet cleaning.

The solar energy market is primarily comprised of Photovoltaic (PV) and Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) power plant operators. Currently PV accounts for more than 90% of the circa 180GW global solar capacity . The rest is accounted by emerging CSP technology which has been growing at around 35-75% per year during the past decade . Around half of this capacity is located in Europe . The primary market segments which will be targeted by Cleandrone are utility scale PV and CSP solar plants. Utility scale solar plants capacity range from less than 1 MW to 400 MW . Assuming average size of 50 MW for a plant, there will be more than 5000 utility scale solar plants in 2020 (250GW total). This figure represents the global Serviceable Available Market (SAM). Within utility scale solar plants, Cleandrone will be focusing on vertically integrated companies in global PV and CSP plants. Although there are relatively few vertically integrated customers, they capture at least 40% of the global PV and CSP market share. By focusing on such companies, Cleandrone will have cost reduction potential for large portfolio of power stations. This focus on vertically integrated companies limits the serviceable obtainable market (SOM) to more than 2000 power stations (100GW total). Finally, because the economics of robotic cleaning are most compelling in areas with significant dust soiling, we have initially confined our focus market to projects owned by our target customers in arid regions which is slightly less than 1000 power stations (50GW total). This market segmentation exercise generates a global target market in 2020 of €192m potential sales with around half of this being situated in Europe.

Within the companies that operate utility scale plants in arid regions (50MW+), we have defined ‘Tier 1’ customers that make up the biggest proportion of the installed solar capacity which are SunEdison, First Solar, SolarReserve, BrightSource Energy, Canadian Solar and Trina Solar. Based on preliminary research, we have identified our ‘Tier 2’ customers as Abengoa, and Torresol. We will make contact with these organisations and at least 6 others through existing industry contacts through introductions from our board and associates.
Key stakeholders for making a successful commercial exploitation are:

• Solar plant operators – the primary customers for the product
• Aviation regulators in key markets – control the operation of UAVs
• Solar industry trade bodies – useful for marketing, developing the market
• Component suppliers – identification of suitable suppliers for rapid growth
• Potential strategic partners – identification of organisations that could offer complimentary business activities such as logistics or brand trust value.