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Thursday, January 24, 2019

Machine Learning and Wind Turbines


My daughter Molly spent six weeks on an environmental program in China last summer. When she got back she had to do a report on machine learning and wind turbines used for clean energy generation. What does machine learning have to do with wind turbines? Plenty it turns out and it tell us a lot about the future of programming.

Sudden changes in wind can cause damage to the blades of the turbine. Maintenance is very expensive especially for turbines in the sea and a broken turbine generates no electricity. To catch these changes ahead of time you can mount a Lidar on top of the turbine.


The Lidar can detect wind gusts from about 100 meters ahead, giving about 10 seconds to react. In that time you can rotate the blades, or the whole turbine itself to minimize any damage. Here's a video describing the situation.


How do you do the computations to convert the Lidar data into accurate representations of wind gusts and then how to best adjust for them? You could imagine some complex fluid dynamics computation, which gets even more complex when you several wind turbines in front of each other. Instead you can use the massive amount of data you have collected by sensors on the turbine and the Lidar information and train a neural network. Training takes a long time but a trained network can quickly determine a good course of action. Now neural networks can always make mistakes but unlike self-driving cars, a mistake won't kill anyone, just possibly cause more damage. Since on average you can save considerable maintenance costs, using ML here is a big win.

I've obviously over simplified the above but I really like this example. This is not an ML solution to a standard AI question like image recognition or playing chess. Rather we are using ML to make a difficult computation tractable mostly by using ML on available data and that changes how we think about programming complex tasks.

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