In the not-so distant future, each array of solar panels may come with its own robot overseer. Qbotix thinks so anyway, and, in an effort to make those panels more efficient, it has designed a little "Solbot" that runs around solar fields on a monorail, adjusting the angle that each array faces the sun.
It's a pretty brilliant idea. Given the plunging costs of the photovoltaics—China's mass-manufacturing of solar panels has made them dirt cheap—the major gains left to be made are in optimizing the systems in which they're arranged.
Solar companies have already experimented with tracking systems that move the whole lot of panels, in synch, to face the sun. The problem with tracking systems is that they require a ton of steel and cement to make, and are prone to breakdowns. A small robot or two adjusting each one individually, then, may make for a more nimble, efficient system.
The San Jose Mercury recently profiled Qbotix's first commercial installation, at a jail in Alameda. There, Solbot "can adjust the angle of each photovoltaic array with remarkable precision, all while gathering data and feeding it back to the home office. The Solbot replaces the need for each solar array to have its own set of gears. And if one Solbot breaks down or needs maintenance, another one can be easily dispatched."
Gunther Portfolio shot a little video of the Solbot in action:
Here's SJMN again:
The Solbot runs on a simple track that looks like a monorail line. It moves along and stops at each solar array to adjust the panels so that they are 5 degrees ahead of the sun. The process takes about 40 minutes, then starts over again. The track, which is built a few feet above the ground, can be configured as needed without grading the land and disturbing native plants and habitats.
Qbotix has received over $12 million in investment, so perhaps the idea is catching on, and robots will one day will rule our solar panels.