La Silla: Where Innovation Can Fly

Published on Thursday, 26 October 2017

“Technology allows us to build digital highways where data can travel. The data can give us access to opportunities and solutions that, until recently, seemed unthinkable.”

By embarking on this new frontier, our innovation has created a kind of digital bridge, made up of a constant flow of information that crosses the Atlantic Ocean, bringing together the La Silla solar plant in the Atacama Desert in Chile with the Enel Innovation Lab in Catania, located at the foot of Mount Etna, in Sicily.

Thanks to this virtual arc, Enel Green Power is constructing a new, concrete way to take care of the monitoring and maintenance of solar plants, putting together the power of Big Data and the agility of drones.

The Future comes from the sky

The photovoltaic field at the foot of Cerro La Silla provides clean energy for one of the most prestigious astronomical observatories on the planet, the European Southern Observatory (ESO)

It’s one of EGP’s most future-oriented plants, an open-air laboratory where we combine the use of bifacial modules, smart modules with on-board electronics and conventional modules, in order to test, in the same place, the performance of innovative technologies compared to conventional ones.

The La Silla solar field is located in one of the most arid places on Earth. The Atacama Desert provides unique conditions to verify module behaviour, but also problems that are unlike any other solar plant’s.

The plant is immersed in a Martian landscape. Solar radiation is unusual for humans: in the universal index to measure ultraviolet light, a specific level (11-12) was inserted for the rays of the area. During construction, the teams dealt with the sun by wearing long-sleeved shirts and 50+ SPF sun protection. The nearest inhabited place is a two-hour drive away. 

“La Silla requires an innovative approach when it comes to maintenance, as well. How can we take care of a field located in a secluded environment? The answer came from the sky.”

To monitor the functioning of the various modules and collect data on their performance, we launched a project in which Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), so-called drones, go to the fields and check on the La Silla plant.

A (technological) eye focused on the future

The llamas grazing on the slopes of the Cerro witness, without fear, the work of strange flying objects. As the drones fly over the Atacama Desert, their cameras record images in a unique spectacle. 

Losing sight of the red and rocky stretches of hills and mountains, even the giant telescopes of the ESO seem small. But the drones’ mission is not just to show the natural spectacle of this area of Chile.

“The drones fly over the La Silla field, performing visual and thermal analysis of panel conditions. Their eyes are focused on the modules and, at the same time, on the future.”

– Giuseppe Leotta, Innovative Business Opportunity Manager Solar

Many control and monitoring activities can be done more quickly with drones, giving useful information to optimize plant operation and facilitate the work of Operation & Maintenance teams.

The UAVs can quickly carry out actions that would require many hours and several people. In the early phases of testing, they were commanded by specialized staff present on site, but the project is planning for take-off, flyover and landing operations to be managed remotely, even from Italy, and routes to be planned in such a way to let drones work autonomously.

“This is an experiment with tremendous potential both for photovoltaic fields located in difficult-to-access zones and for those that cover extremely large areas.”

– Giuseppe Leotta, Innovative Business Opportunity Manager Solar

What is taking shape at La Silla is a project that could, over time, become common for all EGP photovoltaic fields. It came about thanks to close collaboration between Innovation and Engineering & Construction in the construction phase, and continues in the same vein with the direct involvement of Operation & Maintenance.

Over the red expanses of the Atacama Desert, a new way of imagining solar plant management is coming to light. In this far corner of Chile, we’ve brought our best innovations for panels and now we’ve added drones. Now the challenge continues, on the ground and in the sky.