Robotic Solar Array

Brian Hicks

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted September 5, 2012

Could the solution to solar efficiency lie in robotics? California startup QBotix Inc. thinks so. In their test setup, a small robot moves around a solar panel array on a monorail, making slight adjustments to panel angles in order to more efficiently track the sun through both the days and seasons, thereby maximizing electricity production.

Dual-axis tracking systems aren’t new, but they are expensive. Nevertheless, they are very efficient, bumping up electricity production by 45 percent.

But QBotix’s single robot drastically slashes costs. Indeed, the company claims that by using that single robot to handle 200 panel arrays, rather than individual trackers, costs go down by 15 percent while electricity production goes up by the same amount.

Forbes reports:

“Much of the cost of a solar plant is the steel used in the system,” says Wasiq Bokhari, QBotix’s chief executive as he shows [Todd Woody, Forbes reporter] around the 24-kilowatt installation in Menlo Park days before the startup emerged from stealth mode. “The robots allow us to take out 50% of steel utilization in the system.”

Interestingly, the actual solar panels account for barely a third of the total cost of a single-axis power plant. That’s why focus has shifted to ironing out kinks throughout the supply chain in order to seek out weak spots.

QBotix sells its systems as 300-kilowatt units which include a robot (with another backup robot), a steel track, and tracking stands for solar panels. The robots are powered by lithium-ion batteries, and they are GPS-equipped to communicate wirelessly. A single robot can adjust a 200-panel array in roughly 40 minutes, and it consumes a total of 30 cents of electricity per day.

Another benefit offered by the QBotix system is that one does not have to dig additional trenches to bury power wiring; the wiring simply runs alongside the monorail. This provides great flexibility to solar array operators, who no longer have to search for level land or grade it until level.

QBotix has already signed up customers, and the first deal will be announced this October.

So far, QBotix has raised $7.5 million in funding, with $6.5 million coming from venture-capital firms NEA and Firelake Capital.

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