Using robots to tilt panels, Bokhari says, "is like adding a turbo charger to your engine." And they can perform other jobs, too. In the world of solar power plant construction and operation, which still relies largely on manual labor, robotics is an emerging trend. Some companies, such as Alion Energy and Greenbotics, have engineered robots to wipe away the sticky, sun-blocking dust that tends to accumulate on solar panels. Another design from Alion installs solar panels and mounting equipment.
Historically, engineering robots to replace humans has proven a daunting task for some industries because robots only perform a narrow task and can't adapt to a changing environment or get trained for new tasks, says Kinsey. Until recently, that has made robots a more expensive and riskier investment than hiring humans to do jobs such as construction and electrical repairs. It also makes designing robots for outdoor use particularly challenging.
The emergence of more powerful processors, sensors and sophisticated software have helped to shrink the size of industrial robots and make them more mobile and smarter at performing more complex tasks, Kinsey says. He points to Boston-based Rethink Robotics, for example, which last year unveiled a robot capable of learning to perform different tasks on a factory assembly line and reacting to changes such as misplaced parts. Another company, called Kiva Systems (acquired by Amazon in 2012), is supplying fleets of robots to warehouses around the country. Controlled by a central computer, the mobile orange robots buzz around warehouse floors and scan barcodes on the ground to retrieve items off the shelves for shipping. And at Tesla Motors’ factory in California, robots on the company’s highly automated assembly line can switch between multiple functions. "They are like Edward Scissorhands," Kinsey says.
Designs are improving. QBotix’s robots are equipped with GPS, sensors, and wireless communication equipment to record and report their work. And the company unveiled a streamlined version of its robots-on-rails system this summer, showcasing a smaller, lighter, and faster bot capable of managing 340 kilowatts of solar panels every 40 minutes. That’s an array large enough to cover the rooftops of 85 typical single-family homes in California. "It's an aerodynamic design for ruggedness and speed—as if you marry a Hummer with a Lamborghini," says Bokhari.
QBotix says its technology could produce up to 15 percent more electricity than a project using single-axis trackers—without additional cost. "QBotix is a leap ahead because it's brought the cost way way down,” says Wu. “It's very appealing,"
The company has plans to develop its technology beyond tracker robots. Its team of 15 engineers is working on a new robot that would clean solar panels and detect cracks or other problems with solar panels and equipment, Bokhari says. The idea is to use the same rail system but different robots to do the work, or to set up a system just for the cleaning and inspection robots.
Although using robots to adjust solar panels is a sound proposition, Kinsey says, the day when robots will overtake humans in doing most of the building and running of solar power plants remains far off. Utilities looking to purchase electricity from solar developers want to lock in power prices for 20 years or more, so prospective customers want assurances that new technology from new companies like QBotix and its peers will be reliable over the long term. With each round of the track, the robots are gathering data to make their case.