Zutari uses Unity to design renewable energy sites for a more sustainable future

Tony Faccenda

See how Zutari, a South African engineering consultancy, is using Unity’s real-time 3D development platform to automate large-scale solar photovoltaics (PV) projects to reduce the time required to develop design-level insights and decrease costs.

Zutari’s mission is to co-create innovative engineering solutions that deliver real impact and enable environments, communities, and economies across Africa to thrive. Among its core areas of expertise, Zutari works to deliver sustainable energy solutions—like hydro, solar, hybrid, storage, and wind power—that fit unique local needs, terrain, and constraints. To accomplish that, Zutari and its visualization team embrace emerging technology throughout a project’s lifecycle.

“By bringing storytelling and creative technology together, we create immersive and interactive project experiences that better communicate the vision of major infrastructure and built environment projects,” says Murray Walker, Expertise Leader in Interactive Visualization at Zutari.

At the heart of the company’s emerging technology is Unity’s real-time 3D development platform. Zutari is using Unity to change the way large-scale solar projects in South Africa are designed, created, and operated.

Sun tracking and shading

Taking on a solar project is a huge endeavor. Some sites can be as large as 112 square miles. That’s about 2.5 times bigger than the city of San Francisco. To get an entire site into Unity, 3D models are spawned after projects are exported and coordinates are added for each of the components. Autodesk Revit and AutoCAD models are brought into Unity to create an immersive, interactive virtual environment.

Solar panels need to be placed in the correct position relative to the earth and project site in order to optimize each panel to convert as much sunlight into energy as possible. Every site is going to be different and come with its own set of challenges, whether it’s in Brazil, Malawi, or Canada.

In Unity, Zutari can do sun tracking and shading for each solar panel. For example, it enables them to see if panels are too close together and shading each other at a specific time of day or year, which is going to be different in the winter than it is in the summer.

The terrain can also play a factor, complicating sun shading even more. The geographic location might not allow a panel to be placed as planned. By tracking sun and shading, Zutari is able to optimize its solar sites and install as many panels as possible to increase the energy output.

While it is typical that these issues are accounted for using more traditional engineering and design tools, this highly immersive visualization allows Zutari’s engineers to quickly review the impact of design decisions under any possible condition throughout a year of operation.

Shedding new light on construction monitoring

Construction monitoring helps provide scheduling guidance for when and where components should be installed. Unity enables developers early insight into what is happening on-site throughout various stages of the project lifecycle with a virtual model that multiple stakeholders can access simultaneously.

Zutari tracks progress by leveraging drone footage captured at various stages of construction. The drone footage is then used to place the objects accordingly within the virtual environment. Updated visualizations are sent to the client every week.

This provides them with an interactive progress report, the ability to “tour” the site virtually throughout the process, and validation that the build is consistent with what’s being paid for. Zutari is always looking for ways to improve the process even further.

“Our goal is to eventually use Unity to train machine learning algorithms that can help us determine the completion percentage of a site, where the drones can automatically discern a bush from a pole we’ve constructed in the ground and perform an accurate calculation of the site’s completeness,” says Walker.

An internal solar PV design solution

To improve and accelerate design even further, Zutari is using Unity alongside AutoPV, a computational design solution also developed by Zutari with its top PV design engineers to automate the design process of large utility-scale solar PV facilities.

The solar design process is quite laborious and time-consuming, taking weeks or even months for large utility-scale projects. It requires numerous iterations to optimize the routing, length and cable sizes, and the placement of inverters and junction boxes for each facility. Manually calculating these routings, locations, and engineering parameters is complex and even minor errors can result in setbacks and rework. With AutoPV, the cable and inverter layouts and engineering parameters can now be calculated automatically in a matter of seconds. This allows near-instant design-level detailed bills of materials, equipment schedules, cable losses, and other detailed engineering parameters from very early project development stages. The power that Unity brings to AutoPV allows Zutari’s engineers and clients to interactively visualize, review and optimize designs as many times as they should wish. Something that is currently not possible to achieve due to long design lead times. Unity’s advanced visualizations also provide rich material for interaction with other stakeholders right from the first steps of development.

Energy for more use cases

Unity is also being leveraged in a number of additional capacities across Zutari’s business, including wind turbine design and construction, trucking logistics for material transport, and more. Zutari is also actively developing virtual reality (VR) solutions to train operators of high voltage electrical equipment and installations in the safety of their own offices. These training solutions will have a significant impact on the future of operator and contractor training.

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