A Combined Computer Vision and Deep Learning Approach for Rapid Drone-Based Optical Characterization of Parabolic Troughs: Paper No. 021008

Devon Kesseli, Veena Chidurala, Ryan Gooch, Guangdong Zhu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus Citations


Optical accuracy is a primary driver of parabolic trough concentrating solar power (CSP) plant performance, but can be damaged by wind loads, gravity, error during installation, and regular plant operation. Collecting and analyzing optical measurements over an entire operating parabolic trough plant is difficult, given the large scale of typical installations. Distant Observer, a software tool developed at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, uses images of the absorber tube reflected in the collector mirror to measure both surface slope in the parabolic mirror and offset of the absorber tube from the ideal focal point. This technology has been adapted for fast data collection using low-cost commercial drones, but until recently still required substantial human labor to process large amounts of data. A new method leveraging advanced deep learning and computer vision tools can drastically reduce the time required to process images. This new method addresses the primary analysis bottleneck, identifying featureless, reflective mirror corner points to a high degree of accuracy. Recent work has shown promising results using computer vision methods. The combined deep learning and computer vision approach presented here proved highly effective and has the potential to further automate data collection and analysis, making the tool more robust. The method presented in this paper automatically identified 74.3% of mirror corners within 2 pixels of their manually marked counterparts and 91.9% within 3 pixels. This level of accuracy is sufficient for practical Distant Observer analysis within a target uncertainty. A commercial drone collected video of over 100 parabolic trough modules at an operating CSP plant to demonstrate the deep learning and computer vision method's usefulness in processing large amounts of data. These troughs were successfully analyzed using Distant Observer, paired with the new deep learning and computer vision algorithm, and can provide plant operators and trough designers with valuable insight about plant performance, operating strategies, and plant-wide optical error trends.
Original languageAmerican English
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Solar Energy Engineering, Transactions of the ASME
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2023

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-5700-81380


  • computer vision
  • concentrating solar power
  • deep learning
  • machine learning
  • optics
  • parabolic trough


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