Robotics and automation have already been in the solar industry for years. Visit any solar module manufacturing facility (like SPW did when checking out Silfab Solar in Ontario) and you’ll find robotic arms assembling cells into strings, soldering wires and sealing backsheets.
Even outside of manufacturing, more robotics are now entering solar services. From utility-scale maintenance to construction assistance, autonomous devices are lending a helping hand to solar crews.
When the sheep just aren’t enough, an autonomous mower can save a lot of time and effort when it comes to vegetation maintenance. Texas company Renu Robotics has been developing the Renubot for the last few years, using DOE grants and prize money to fine-tune an autonomous tractor with a 63-in. mower deck that uses GPS and lidar to map and mow under and around solar mounts. The mower is powered by lithium batteries that are fast-charged in Renubot’s own docking enclosure.
The mower can work day or night and quickly adjusts to changing conditions and environments. Renubot uses multiple sensors to determine its location, if obstacles are present and where to move next.
Renu Robotics entered 2021 fully funded and is increasing its worker pool, hiring engineers and field technicians to soon deploy autonomous mowers on U.S. solar project sites.
Solar panel cleaning
After getting its start in the dusty regions of the Middle East, the Ecoppia solar panel cleaner is using that extensive experience to expand its presence in North America. Autonomous robots travel across both fixed-tilt and tracking systems to clean panels without water. Each Ecoppia robot has its own on-board solar module for power. The Ecoppia AI platform initiates cleanings based on weather conditions and other situations, ultimately developing the optimal maintenance schedule for its environment.
The E4 robot (for fixed-tilt) travels along its own track across a row of modules, floating above the panels and cleaning them with a spinning microfiber cloth. When the robot finishes a row, it is securely docked at the edge of the array, protected from the elements and not casting shade onto the row of panels.
The T4 robot (for tracking systems) acts more like a Roomba, traveling freely across rows, but more aware of its location so it doesn’t fall off. The T4 also uses a spinning microfiber cloth and docks at the row-end after the job is done.
Last year, Ecoppia received a $40 million investment from U.S. real estate company CIM Group, which will allow the company to further expand geographically. With over 16 GW of cleaning agreements, Ecoppia could soon add a few more gigawatts as it brings its water-free cleaning robots state-side.
For hands-off help with land surveying, ground-mount solar solution provider TerraSmart uses its Autonomous Precision Survey Rover (APSR). Coordinate files are uploaded to a tablet, then the APSR gets to work on its “mission” of surveying and drilling pilot holes for ground screws. The battery-powered robot (with backup gas generator) can drill up to 1,300 pilot holes each day. Traveling at a maximum speed of 11 mph and across inclines up to 45°, the APSR drills 2-in.-wide holes.
TerraSmart has three of the proprietary rovers that it deploys to its own projects. Where a typical human crew can locate 200 survey points each day, the APSR is significantly faster and more precise.
“Every time we use the APSR on a project site, the racking installation phase runs faster, smoother and produces better tolerances,” said Ashleigh Kent, TerraSmart director of marketing. “The APSR works best on larger land sites that contain less rock. It makes for a speedier and more accurate install.”
Unloading solar panels and placing them onto racks at huge utility-scale sites may soon be automated, thanks to a $1.9 million DOE award to RE2 Robotics. RE2 wants to apply its outdoor, autonomous robotic technology to solar construction and enhance the process for solar field assembly.
The robots would augment solar construction crews, not replace them. They’re designed to improve labor productivity and bolster worker safety, allowing utility-scale contractors to produce more megawatts, faster.
“The solar construction process is mostly manual today, with large amounts of repetitive tasks across very large projects. Developing technologies that make the process more efficient will serve to make solar an even more economic source of energy for the future,” said Jorgen Pedersen, RE2 president and CEO, in a press release.
RE2 is currently partnering with companies like Array Technologies and Mortenson to see how mobile robotics can aid utility-scale solar construction.