Introducing robots that tilt solar panels

Inside a fenced-in yard in an industrial corner of Menlo Park, Calif. — a few miles from the venture capitalists on Sand Hill Road, and the west span of the Dumbarton Bridge that stretches over the bay  — robots have quietly been tending to two rows of solar panels. Every 40 minutes the robots adjust the tilt of the panels to face the sun as it moves across the sky — equipped with sensors, GPS and a wireless connection, the robots also continuously report back data about the panels to the solar project owner.

The robots, which represent an entirely new and potentially disruptive way of managing solar panels, won’t have to be under cover for much longer. Made by a new VC-backed startup called QBotix (which we briefly mentioned last month), the robots are making their public debut on Tuesday and Qbotix says its robots are being used for their first commercial installation at a solar panel project later this month.

“Think of it as a doctor going from one patient to the next, and in the process it’s sending information about the health of every tracker it visits,” Wasiq Bokhari, QBotix’s CEO, tells us during a visit to the site last week.

While it’s not uncommon for ground mounted solar panels to use what are called trackers to tilt panels to follow the sun throughout the day, the use of robots for solar trackers is highly unusual. Existing trackers on the market are designed to hold up solar panels as well as to adjust their tilt, and commonly come with their own motors and electronics. There’s generally two kinds of these trackers, single-axis and dual-axis, and dual-axis systems make finer angle adjustments and are often times more expensive because they require more motors.

QBotix’s robotic trackers perform dual-axis adjustments at the price of the same-sized single-axis trackers and enable the panels to produce up to 15 percent more electricity, says Bokhari. QBotix’s design essentially replaces the motors in each tracker with a robot that calibrates the optical angle for each set of solar panels and positions them accordingly.

It’s pretty interesting to watch the robots in action. A robot — about 1.5-meter long and 1-meter high — runs along an elevated track and stops by each tracker that holds up several solar panels and tweaks the angle of the panel. Since the sun moves in a 10-degree arc every 40 minutes, QBotix has designed its robots to be able to adjust 200 trackers with 1.5-kilowatt of generation capacity each every 40 minutes. After working on the last tracker at the end of the 40-minute round, the robot returns to the first tracker to start the next set of adjustments.

Each battery-powered robot also comes with a backup robot. So each robot and a backup robot will be responsible for 300 KW of installation. For a 1 megawatt project, for example, a QBotix tracker system will have eight primary and backup robots. The robots are all equipped with GPS, sensors and a wireless connection and can continuously report data back to the solar project owner. Think of it as a solar tracking system for the age of cloud computing and robotics.

The first commercial installation of a QBotix system will take place this month in the San Francisco Bay Area, but Bokhari declined to disclose where as well as the customer’s name. The startup is assembling the robots at its headquarters now and plans to hire contract manufacturers do the job later if it’s not able to handle the amount of orders.

The first test system went up a year ago and used a prototype design that QBbotix engineers later modified with more durable components. The company put in a new and improved test system a few weeks ago. Installing test systems is important not just for improving their engineering, but it also provides field data that solar power project investors look at for determining if a new technology is worth their funds. The startup needs three- to six months worth of field data to demonstrate its technology.

QBotix also has designed its robotic trackers to work with solar mirrors that direct and concentrate sunlight onto a boiler to produce steam and generate electricity. But the company’s first target market segment will be projects that use conventional solar panels.

Founded in 2010, QBotix has raised $7.5 million in venture capital so far, including a $6.5 million Series A round earlier this year from investors including NEA, Firelake Capital, Siemens and DFJ JAIC. NEA recently pointed to Qbotix as an example of how the firm is still making new bets on young cleantech startups, despite the difficult environment for cleantech companies this year.