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In The Future, Robots Will Operate Solar Power Plants

By keeping our solar panels constantly facing the sun, little electronic helpers can make solar power drastically more efficient (and they never complain!).

Over the past few decades, robots have emerged as heroes of society, venturing into disaster areas that are too dangerous for humans, gliding across the ocean, and even landing on Mars. It only makes sense, then, that robots would swoop in and revitalize the ailing solar industry.

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QBotix, a Silicon Valley-based company that just emerged from stealth mode, wants to breathe new life into the industry with a robotic dual-axis solar tracking system (a system that orients solar panels towards the sun) that is efficient, reliable, and relatively cheap. If that doesn’t sound exciting, consider this: QBotix is one of the only companies in the solar space in recent memory to receive Series A financing–a total of $6.5 million from investors like Siemens Venture Capital and Firelake Capital.

“We want to use mobile, rugged, and intelligent robots to operate solar power plants,” says Wasiq Bokhari, CEO and founder of QBotix. “The goal is to dramatically reduce the cost of solar energy.”

The cost of solar panels has already dropped quickly in recent years. But the balance of system–every part of a solar PV system outside the actual panels–remains expensive. “It’s the major cost of any solar plant,” explains Bokhari, who has a background in solar development. QBotix changes that.

The QBotix Tracking System consists of two robots–a primary and a backup. Solar panels are installed on QBotix mounting systems, and the robots move around on a track, adjusting the mounting systems as they go so that the panels always face the sun. “It’s almost like a doctor going from one patient to the next,” says Bokhari.

In conventional solar tracking systems, hundreds of pricey controllers and motors align the solar panels with the light. “In order to advertise a fixed cost, people make trackers very large, some more than 200 square meters. When you make a structure that big, you have to add more and more steel that makes it costly and unreliable,” says Bokhari. “[The robot] takes away more than half the steel used in tracking systems, reduces the cost by a factor of two, and takes away hundreds of failure-prone motors.”

Each robot can handle 300 kilowatts of solar, making the cost just a few cents per watt. If a failure occurs, the backup robot can take over until the primary is replaced. The robots are compatible with standard solar modules, inverters and foundations. “The biggest drawback is perception,” explains Bokhari. “Our approach is so different that people have to be educated about how our innovation works.”

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QBotix already has three to four customers lined up for this year, with even more set to purchase systems in the first quarter of next year.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more

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