Here's an Autonomous, Solar Panel-Cleaning Robot

The Roomba is cool again.

Jan 7 2015, 1:00pm

​Image: Author

​Not too many things make you pause at CES, the country's largest consumer electronics show—the entire thing is a sensory overload, kind of like when Tom Cruise walks into that store in Minority Report. So it follows that it's not all that wondrous to see the latest curved display or thing you strap to your head to augment and or go into a virtual reality. And then, you turn the corner, and there's a goddamn robot riding back and forth on a solar panel.

The Raybot is essentially a Roomba that goes back and forth on a piece of glass, but it feels like oh-so-much-more than that when you realize that the piece of glass is generating power from the sun. And solar panels do need to be cleaned, after all.

In general, it's not much of a problem to clean a solar panel, provided you have plenty of water. But, considering that most commercial solar power plants are in the desert, that's not always a given. Instead, the Raybot is loaded up with brushes, vacuums, and a blower to remove dust.

"If it's just a little dusty, you're not going to see much of a difference in power output," Dominic Desmarias, of Ecovacs Robotics, the company that makes the Raybot, told me. "But in some places, you can lose up to 20 percent of your power if it gets too dirty."

That's turned out to be quite a problem in many parts of Ecovac's home country of China, where water can be scarce. It's also a problem in dusty desert environs in the southwestern United States, where the company hopes to market the product. The only disappointing thing about the robot is that it runs on a battery, not solar power itself.

This is a consumer electronics show, but Desmarias says that Raybot is generally for large solar power plants—Raybot can clean roughly five solar panels an hour, and you only need to use it every couple months or so under most conditions. So, it's not really necessary for someone who has a robot at home.

And who said we weren't living in the future.