A View from Martin LaMonica
A Robot to Tilt Solar Panels
Startup QBotix uses a robot traveling along a track in solar farm to optimize the angle of light on panels.
One of the challenges with solar power is the amount of space panels take compared to other energy sources. Pointing solar panels toward the sun with trackers is a common ways to get more energy from panels, particularly at large-scale farms.
Startup QBotix has developed a robotic system for tracking the sun along two dimensions, but at lower cost than traditional two-axis trackers. The company, which has received $7.5 million in venture funding, is launching on Tuesday and expects to announce its first customer installations in the fourth quarter this year. The company’s product is an example of how robotics can be used to lower the end price of solar power by cutting labor or equipment costs. (See, These Robots Install Solar Panels.)
Large-scale solar generating stations typically have trackers on ground mounts to maximize output. Single-axis trackers will face the sun in the morning and then gradually tilt until they’re facing upward at midday and then back into a more vertical position at the end of the day. A two-axis tracker also twists the panel to follow the sun’s angle above the horizon.
The QBotix Tracking System rethinks two-axis tracking in an effort to bring the cost down to what solar project developers pay for single-axis trackers.
Instead of having the hardware to adjust the angle on every solar panel, QBotix engineers created a traveling robot equipped with the motor needed to change the angle. Like a small train, the robot drives along a track a few feet off the ground placed along the edge of solar panels and makes adjustments.
It’s designed so that one robot can service 200 panels in 40 minutes, the time it takes the sun to move 10 degrees. The track can be a simple loop or navigate turns and hills, according to QBotix CEO and founder Wasiq Bokhari. A magnet on the robot allows it to locate a panel mount, where it can attach its motors to make the adjustments.
In addition to tweaking the sun angle, the battery-powered robot, which has an on-board GPS, can gather data on the performance of panels. “Think of the robot as a doctor going from one patient to the next and in the process it’s sending information on its own health as well as every tracker it visits,” Bokhari explained. While one robot is circulating around the track, a second robot is charging at a docking station.
The company says that its product increases energy production by eight to 15 percent compared to a single-axis tracker but at the same installed price. The system can be installed to tilt 200 panels or be scaled up for larger solar farms.
The price of solar panels has dropped dramatically over the past three years, with the cost having dropped about 50 percent in the last year. But other equipment, such as wiring and inverters, and the installation represent about half the cost of solar power. QBotix and other innovative companies in solar financing are seeking to lower the price of solar by attacking these “balance of system” costs. The mounting, foundation, and single-axis trackers represent 21 percent of the solar cost for utility-scale systems, compared to 34 percent for panels themselves, according to QBotix.
The QBotix tracking system was designed using off-the-shelf components and can be made in the U.S. The company, which is selling to solar project developers, said its first commercial installation will begin operating at the end of September.
Siemens Technology-to-Business, a division of the Germany-based industrial giant, has spent nearly the last year qualifying the QBotix Tracking System for solar panels and concentrating photovoltaic arrays.