There’s a floating solar farm in Thailand, and it’s largely made possible by drones.
The solar farm is located on the Sirindhorn dam basin in southeastern Thailand, near the border of Laos, where it impounds the Lam Dom Noi River and serves as the largest water resource for the region.
And in 2021, the Thai government kicked off what could be a quest to be the dam area a giant energy resource for the region too. That’s because Thailand spent $34 million to install floating solar panels over the water.
While the reservoir and dam have long powered the Sirindhorn Hydropower Plant — which has an installed capacity of 3 units of 12,000 kilowatts each and annual energy production of 90 GWh — the floating solar panels increased the power to 45 MW.
All that power though requires a giant solar farm — and this one is 250 acres, making it one of the largest floating solar farms in the world. The floating solar farm consists of seven sections floating on buoys that together are the size of about 70 soccer fields. And since the panels are located 350 meters from the nearest shoreline, inspecting all that area that far from the shore is not exactly the easiest task.
And that’s where drones come in.
The Electric Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) just completed a largely successful proof-of-concept project in partnership with Thai drone consultancy and equipment provider Top Engineering Corporation as well as autonomous inspection company Percepto that uses drones to monitor the floating solar farm. the drones conduct autonomous, routine inspections of panels and other equipment. If they detect anomalies, humans can be alerted to repair them — in theory finding problems early on before they turn into bigger issues. Drones will look at everything from the substations to the transformers, to floating fences and solar floaters (those are what hold the panel above water).
In contrast, doing equipment inspection and maintenance sans drones is cumbersome. Otherwise, inspection staff would need to access the panel by boat to manually review the panels. In instances of severe weather, going out via boat might not be possible at all.
Beyond flying for inspection purposes to provide regular operations and maintenance reports, the drones will also be able to map the location of the panels.
Speaking of severe weather, the drones can handle Thailand’s prickly, tropical climate (the southern parts of Thailand especially get high amounts of rain). At the end of 2021, Percepto’s drone system passed rigorous Level 5 hurricane testing at wind speeds of up to 155 mph.
Thailand has largely been a leader in environmental issues. The $34 million floating solar farm project is just one piece of the country’s push to achieve carbon neutral status by 2050. And here’s a fun fact: floating solar panels might be better than those one the land. Placing solar panels on the water surface helps reduce the panels’ heat, which EGAT claims makes the 10-15 percent more efficient than solar panels installed on land. Additionally, it reduces water evaporation in the dam around 460,000 m3/year.