Robotic Solar Panels Produce More Electricity

The QBotix Tracking System uses a monorail system of robots to tilt solar panels toward the sun as it moves throughout the day, replacing tracking systems that are complex and expensive to install and maintain.   (Source: QBotix)
The QBotix Tracking System uses a monorail system of robots to tilt solar panels toward the sun as it moves throughout the day, replacing tracking systems that are complex and expensive to install and maintain.
(Source: QBotix)

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bobjengr   9/18/2012 7:40:28 PM
Great post.   I agree, it seems to be a "better mousetrap".  Then again, isn't that what we do, design and build better mouse traps.  This is an intriguing system and obviously one that has gained some traction and much interest.  Years ago, I was part of a team that developed a solar water heating system, significantly less complex than the one shown in the article.  It did work and we were able to market over 250 during the four years we sold the unit.  The biggest problem—it was not cheap.  Quite expensive for a single family dwelling and not effective enough for commercial use.   I do think devices of the type shown improve the overall technology and certainly improve marketability.

Ralphy Boy
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Ralphy Boy   9/18/2012 6:26:45 PM
I like the concept, it reminds me of tugboats on a river; a single tugboat serves to help steer many ships.

If this bot can steer 200 panels and bring the output up by 20% to 40% on any given day (30%) per year... and do so at a greatly reduced cost compared to 200 tracking motors and accessories... great idea.

That said, beware of the unintended consequences of leaving a robot to its own devices. I'm not sure what could go wrong in this case but I always assume that robots are dumb as a rock and will find the one thing we've missed and exploit that to create maximum damage.

In the 70s & 80s I worked at a place that was a NASA grant funded solar heated/cooled factory. We had about 1/2 an acre of water filled collectors (you don't hear much about those anymore do you?)

They originally had CC Cameras watching the system but someone decided that they were not needed... The panels could be rotated to face down to keep snow off during heavy storms. Well, someone turned on the rotation motors and walked away assuming the panels would stop at the limit switches... Yeah...

One switch failed and that array pulled on it's 4" diameter hose till it snapped... 10,000 gallons of water and very expensive environmentally safe anti-freeze pumped out. Believe it or not a second leak occurred a couple years later which also emptied the system before they finally unplugged it. I helped dismantle the system a while later.

Okay no robots were involved, but a true story about a very expensive solar panel mishap involving a single limit switch... Like I said, great idea... but expect and prepare for the unexpected.

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Re: I think you missed the point
rspake   9/18/2012 4:38:48 PM
I can't imagine anythong other than "proof of concept" being built next to a possible obstruction. Solar panel 101. However, driving down country roads does reveal a lot of badly placed panels on small government solar powered projects.

A suitable gear reduction on one motor could drive a whole series of "linked" panels in one axis since speed is not of the essence. The sun is far enough away to be considered a moving point source of illumination so all panels can point to the same place.

Using a traveling robot seems to be streching for a reson to use robotics. On the other hand it looks cute....

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Re: poor picture
burn0050   9/18/2012 2:32:22 PM
We had solar panels installed this year. We have 44 panels, 20 south, 24 west facing. Our system was rated at about 9500 kWh per year. Last year our consumption was around 15,000 kWh, which puts the system at generating nominally about 63% of our usage. We have a grid tie system, which means the extra energy we generate gets pushed back onto the grid, and runs our "net" meter backwards.

In 8.25 months (the system went live 1/12/2012), we have generated 8734 kWh, and our net usage is 1350 kWh. That puts us at generating ~86% of our usage. Last year, in July alone, we used about 2100 kWh. We live in Colorado, which is one of the better places to live for generating solar, for sure.

We decided to lease the system for 20 years, which is what made it cost effective. All maintenance is covered under the lease, so if a panel goes bad, an inverter goes out, or other problems it's all covered. The lifetime of a system is about 25 years. However, we don't get any rebates or credits - these go to our installer, Sungevity. But, we pre-paid our lease, which gave us a significant discount.

We figured that it would take us 12 years to re-coup our investment, but that does not take into account energy prices (Xcel has already announced a 5% increase). If we are able to maintain our energy production at 75%, our re-coup drops to just over 9 years, which also does not account for price increases. Also, we have a 2 tiered system in CO, so from 6/1-9/30, any usage over 500 kWh in a month costs double (from 4.5 to 9 cents) - that makes things a little more complicated to figure out the numbers, but actually it speeds up our re-coup, because during the summer months, 2/3 of our spending was at the higher rate. I estimate it will probably take us about 7-8 years to re-coup our investment.

From March through August, our electric bill was a big fat 0 (except for the $6.75 facilities fees). That has been very satisfying. Last year our July bill was $340. This year it was $6.75.

Grid tie systems are a lot more economical - battery systems are extremely expensive, and almost double the cost of the system, plus the batteries rarely last more than 5 years, so maintenance costs quickly eat up your savings.

I hope this helps, and let me know if you need any more info.

Shadetree Engineer
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Re: I think you missed the point
Shadetree Engineer   9/18/2012 12:25:34 PM
Until I read your comment, I totally didn't understand this system. The article should've made it more clear how this works as I had first thought the panels were being driven down the track. Then I double-checked on youtube, searching for qbot demos. Yup, the aerodynamic looking device travels along the track to the base of each panel. I imagine there's some patented mechanism involved to lock the panel in position when the robot moves on to the next unit. Perhaps a clutch system that releases automatically as the robot locks into position under a panel. I would expect the monorail itself to include bus bars to connect the output of all the panels. How much additional cost to add a full length tunnel to the track to keep snow from blocking the robot? Wouldn't it be cheaper to use a plastic pipe to run the robot through, with the interface of each panel mount sticking down inside of the tube? Bus bars can be inset along the inner wall of all the tube sections. This will help keep weeds from interfering with the robot, keep the weather off of the bus bars, maybe help reduce corossion along the bus bars so it's not a problem for the robot to always maintain a connection to keep it's battery pack charged. Data could be sent out the bus bars using off the shelf powerline networking to track the performance of each solar panel as well as track the condition of the robot itself.

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A Better Mousetrap ? ? ?
rdelaplaza   9/18/2012 12:12:53 PM
Inflated overstatements, and half truths make things easier to shove down the throats of possible customers.

This is just another version of the old "better mousetrap" paradigm.

Here is when the law of "Dimishing returns" hits the road.

What king of "huge energy savigns" are we talking about, when the positioner moves the panels a few degrees every 40 minutes ? what is the return on the investment on a -more expensive- (and supposedly better) tracking system?

I think that this kind of article is just a bunch of glittery "hype" and of course, EDN has to make some money to keep feeding the payroll... so I think it's ok to publish this kind of "promotional" article. but please don't take us "engineers" as fools.

We will always question the purpose, usefulness and every kind of claim made about what is presented to us, with shine and glitter. We as engineers represent the most "critical thinking" part of society in all referent to our fields of expertise and then some.

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Re: Large-scale commercial installations prime target
wskehr   9/18/2012 10:55:27 AM
Looking at the picture, since the monorail is below the panels, the ability to cover or enclose the robot is well beyond the ability to protect the panels.  Enough snow and ice to immobilize a protected robot and track would probably render the array useless that day so the loss of use of the robot is immaterial.  The robot looks pretty substantial so I'm guessing that there's an amount of power/torque/reliability that would be prohibitively expensive on individual panels.


As far as a broken robot goes, since the plans call for two robots, one for a backup, this should not be much of a problem.  It doesn't take much engineering to add a clutch that is manually activated to disengage any drive mechanisms from the wheels.  The device could be set up so that if another robot pushes from behind, everything disengages automatically.  Or a handle thrown by hand that opens the drive mechanism to allow picking up the robot from the track. 

Since I'm willing to get on an airplane, I should be willing to accept that they can build this robot to be reliable.

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Is the position the same for all panels?
wskehr   9/18/2012 10:26:54 AM
Will the robot use the same alignment data for all panels or can some panels have individual settings?  For example: if, over time, a tree on an adjacent lot blocks a panel at the edge of the array, can the robot select an angle that avoids pointing at the tree?  Or if with wear & tear, the mechanisms get out of alignment, can the robot use specific data for that panel or get feedback from the panel as it's moved?  Can the robot be programmed to move other objects that are mounted in a similiar fashion, such as reflectors used to increase the light falling on panels?

This seems to be one of those "why didn't I think if this" ideas.  It's use of existing technology.  It avoids a whole host of problems or issues with other systems.  For example, individual motors on all panels driven by the output of the panel would fail as soon as it got dark enough to not power the motors.  A mechanical linkage of all panels would allow a single panel's mechanical problems to affect the whole array. 

Once the monorail system is built, it could have additional functionality.  For example, a robot with a water resevoir and pump can wash down solar panels.  It could even carry parts (or food) to someone working on the solar array. 




User Rank
Re: poor picture
etmax   9/18/2012 10:18:22 AM
Hi, I actually had a solar panel system installed 2 months ago. I don't have the RS485 data link on the inverter wired to my computer yet, but I do go out occasionally and select through the menu system to see what I'm getting for my money. This is what happened today 19/09/12 at 10:00am with panels at a fixed inclination of around 30 degrees and facing almost north. and a totally overcast day with that even grey cloud that blankets the sky such that you don't see the puffs of the cloud. The density was such that it was just shy of raining. I have about 4kW worth of panels and about 1/4 is shaded by a neighbour's tree that is soon to be shortened.

About 1500W.

Our location is:

Latitude: 37°48′49″S
Longitude: 144°57′47″E

Now this was 4 hours after sunrise and that would have been increasing later in the day as the sun moved higher and continued to about 2:00pm (4 hours before sunset) so that's at least 6kWhrs while still (barely) in Winter (southern hemisphere) and there would have been more before and after these times as I have seen about 1kW at 9:00am on a similar day about 1 month ago.

So seriously, don't belittle what solar can do, we have been quoted a daily average of around 14kWhr per day averaged out over the year for the system, and with the neighbour's tree lopped I see it truely happening. Once I have the data logger connected I will put some graphs up on the web.


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Re: Large-scale commercial installations prime target
bdcst   9/18/2012 10:11:40 AM
In many parts of the US this monorail driven robotic positioner might be impractical.  Think snow country with icing conditions thrown in for good measure.  And even in locations not prone to icing and snow, what happens if debris is blown onto the track or the robot?  Another issue is a single point of failure.  If the robot fails you lose tracking for your entire array!  I also assume the robot has a charging station unless the rail is energized to provide power on demand.  So, now add robot battery maintenance to your operating cost.

I think the energy saving issue is overstated.  The same total amount of locomotion energy would have to be dissipated to get every array refocused plus, now you have to waste energy on moving the robot from array to array!  The only potential saving would be on peak current required as each array would not be simultaneously moving to track the sun.  But  you can do the same with trackers.  If you want to reduce generation efficiency a bit you could have intellligent controllers stagger the moves and also not re-aim continuously but rather do so periodically with longer idle times between adjustments.

I'd like to see the numbers comparing the cost to engineer and install the monorail tracks and positioning adapter couplings versus individual motor drives.  Keep in mind the potential savings of mass production of those AZ or AZ/EL drives versus the much lower production rate for the robots.  And how much is ultimately saved if you need to utilize multiple robots and tracks to provide reasonable response time for a very large array?  More important, I'd like to see MTBF comparisons.  I'd think the monorail robot with all of its moving parts and complexity and its duty cycle would represent a higher probability of failure than any individual tracker.


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