Mobile Robots Turn Solar Panels to Follow the Sun

Startup QBotix says robots can boost efficiency of solar energy.

2 min read
Mobile Robots Turn Solar Panels to Follow the Sun

I did a fair amount of sitting on the beach during my vacation this summer. But as any devoted beach goer knows, every hour or so you have to put down your book to adjust your umbrella or your chair's position under it. I got pretty good at predicting the path of the sun throughout the day, so could minimize my effort. Still, the process gave me an appreciation of just how much moving a solar panel has to do to track the sun.

In large solar generating plants in the deserts, there are rows and rows of photovoltaic panels, lined up like umbrellas on a New Jersey beach, that do indeed track the sun. They typically do this with a complicated mix of controllers, sensors, and motors.

QBotix, a startup company in Menlo Park, Calif., thinks it has a better way. This week, it announced the QBotix Tracking System (QTS). It describes this as a “comprehensive dual-axis tracking system that employs rugged, intelligent, and mobile robots to dynamically operate solar power plants and maximize energy output.” That’s a mouthful. I think of it more as a couple of cute little ‘bots running around adjusting beach umbrellas.

Visualize a line or a snaking curve of solar panels, mounted on poles. Now imagine a track that goes down one side of that line. A robot that QBotix has dubbed the SolBot buzzes along that track and adjusts the angle of the solar panels. The company says that one of those little SolBots can, in 40 minutes, adjust 200 panels producing 300 kilowatts of electricity; a QTS system comes with two SolBots, one recharges itself while the other one makes its rounds. The company says that while useful for adjusting panels in neat lines, the SolBot really beats its non-robotic competition in situations with less orderly panels on more complex terrain. And that it increases energy production 8 to 15 percent over standard tracking systems and 40 percent over fixed solar panels. QBotix expects its robots to begin their first commercial operation later this month.

Follow me on Twitter @TeklaPerry.

Photos: QBotix

The Conversation (0)
This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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