Solar Robots Bring Energy Efficiency

Last week, I met with Jim Tisch of Loews Corporation.  A lot of our conversation centered around the dramatic drop in gas prices.  OPEC is clearly manipulating the US oil production by flooding the market with cheap Arabian barrels, and thus slowing down domestic production.  If cartels can use their weight to manipulate  our markets, it doesn’t matter how great our technology is it will always be subject to outside factors.  The words of the Lorax ring perfectly clear, “UNLESS,” — Unless we achieve energy independence through alternative methods like solar.

Solar fields are growing faster than corn, but the big problem is dust, which reduces efficiency by over 35%. This brings us to the robots designed by Israeli startup Ecoppia, as an alternative to  human workers to hose and wipe down panels manually:

 

Dirty panels produce less electricity, but the need to use water for cleaning those panels, especially in dry regions, makes even a clean power project less eco-friendly. And in certain remote corners, water extracted from the ground is too brackish for use without being treated, which adds to the production cost of a solar power plant.  In dusty areas such as the Middle East and India, solar panels could lose electricity production by 10 percent to 35 percent over time if they remain unwashed, Eran Meller, CEO of Ecoppia, was recently interview by fellow blogger, GIGAOM.

Ecoppia’s robots dry clean each panel and move from the top to the bottom of a row of panels. The Israeli startup found a loyal customer in Arava Power, with which Ecoppia installed the first set of its robots on a solar farms (5 MW total) earlier this year in the Negev desert. Ecoppia is installing more robots in other Arava projects.

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“It doesn’t pay to manually clean thousands of panels in hundreds of acres of arid desert fields,” said Jon Cohen, Arava’s CEO. “Now we have a process that costs less, and above that we are upping the output.” Using the robots so far has led to about 2-3 percent more electricity production than employing humans, Cohen said.

The challenge of keeping solar panels dust free will grow as more solar power projects are built worldwide. In many cases, cheap labor and ample water supply will continue to make manual washing the low-cost choice for solar power plant owners. But for companies with projects in different climates — and the need to show they run a low-carbon, sustainable operation to secure permits or dodge lawsuits from environmental groups — a less energy intensive cleaning process could be desirable.

SunPower, which builds solar power projects around the world, bought Greenbotics a year ago after trying out the California startup’s technology in a solar farm it built in the state’s Central Valley.  The big selling point of Greenbotics is that its technology uses up to 90 percent less water than manual cleaning.

Ecoppia was founded in January 2013 but started its development work a few quarters before that. The company has raised an undisclosed amount from the Swarth Group, GlenRock and Gandyr.

Each robot, which weighs about 86 kilograms (190 pounds), is essentially two large microfiber brushes on eight wheels, with the brushes rotating at a high speed to generate airflow as they move down the panel. The airflow removes a bulk of the dust while the brushes get rid of the rest. The robot runs on two 12-volt lead-acid batteries at night. Solar electricity recharges the batteries during the day. After the robot completes its task, it returns to a docking station and uses the rotational energy to get rid of the dust captured by the microfiber.

Ecoppia has designed its robotic system to perform optimally in a row of solar panels that runs 300 meters by 6 meters (984 feet by 20 feet), Meller said. Each robot can take care of hundreds of panels each night, depending on the size and configuration of the installation. Power plant operators can control the robots remotely and receive data about the machines’ performance and maintenance needs.

Ecoppia makes money by selling and installing the robots and providing maintenance and data analytics. The cost to hire Ecoppia to engineer and install its robots runs from $0.03 to $0.06 per watt, Meller said.

With about one year of field data of its robots’ performance, the startup projects that its equipment and services could save 840 million liters of water for a 300 MW solar park over 20 years while increasing electricity sales by $180 million, Meller said. Of course, those projected savings and revenues will vary widely in different countries or even within a country, depending on the local operational costs and how much the utilities are willing to pay for power. Arava, for example, is cleaning its solar panels nightly in Israel while in California, SunPower is cleaning its panels several times a year.

Currently, Ecoppia’s robots are cleaning about 500,000 panels per month. It will be installing robots for other Arava projects, including 40 megawatts that have yet to be completed, that will bring the monthly total to 10 million by the end of 2015, Meller said. The robotics developers are working on entering the U.S. market next year.

Now all we need to do is bring E4 robotics to mars to be able to clean and activate dormant (dust-covered) solar-powered rovers…

RoboCop Patrols Microsoft’s Parking Lot

Living in New York, everyone is focused on crime.  We event have a data bank of daily crime called, COMPSTAT.   However, recent waves of bad policing has made cops embrace new technologies to protect themselves from public scrutiny.  The question is not if will robots replace meter maids, traffic cops and other tertiary policing, but when…

As an example, earlier this week Microsoft hired high-tech security guards to parole the streets, protecting people in California’s Silicon Valley. The Knightscope K5 robots are fighting crime with lasers, GPS and heat-detecting technology. The R2-D2 look alikes patrol autonomously in the set perimeter and record activity around its path.

Providing a “commanding but friendly presence,” the robots were hired to intimidate potential criminals. The new high-tech security guards have the ability to catch a criminal red-handed. “The robot is looking at the video, listening for glass breakage, any loud sound that breaking in would cause,” Knightscope co-founder Stacy Stephens says. “We’ll get the license plate, picture of the vehicle, geotag location, and time.”

The robots stand five-feet-tall and weigh 300 pounds. The robots have laser scanners, a thermal imaging system and the ability to read 300 car license plates in a minute. Its 360-degree HD  surveillance camera streams live video to a command center. And yes, the robots can also detect odors.

But these real-life R2-D2s are not equipped with weapons, and can only contact human security officers to the scene after sounding off an alarm when something goes wrong.  The robots last an entire day with just one charge. When the robot notices its battery is low, it will plus itself into a charger for 20 minutes until it is fully charged. Silicon Valley’s computer giant Microsoft have already stationed four robot security guards on its campus. Ideal for college campuses, malls, or other busy outdoors areas, Knightscope says that approximately four dozen companies remain on a waiting list for the K5 robots.

K5 is not unique but part of new wave of robotic recruits for the policing of the future, and you thought it was just a movie.

Robot Boldly Goes Where No Thing Has Gone Before…

The biggest news to hit the robotic sphere this week are Rosetta & Philae the European robot comet voyagers.  This dynamic duo which has been led by the ESA, the EU’s equivalent to NASA, is a tag team effort to better understand the Universe through attaching scientific instruments to moving comets.   Below are some of the first videos and images taken by the robots (note: Rosetta hovers above while Philae attaches to the comet ice rock below).

 The first picture below is from the lander separating from its “mothership”, Rosetta.  The mission success will determine on Philae’s ability to analyze the icy rock of the comet to better understand the formation of our Solar System.  Most scientist believe that comets contain the oldest material known in our Solar System.

First image
Success! Philae landed just missing the spiral above that would have destroyed the spacecraft:
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In addition to the spiky rock particles, challenges to the mission include a very low gravity on the 4km-wide ice mountain. Philae could simply bounce back to space, as its foot screws and harpoons that fasten it into position failed to deploy.  Mission command said they might use its exploration drill as a back up.

During the mission, which started yesterday afternoon, Philae will take a pictures of its surroundings like the one above and collect data on early water particles.  Figures crossed as its outcome is highly uncertain.  Rather than breaking down the parts composed in these voyagers, we have posted below the schematics that can be enlarged by clicking on the image.  This is one small step for Philae, one giant step for robotkind.

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The Fantastic Micro-bot Voyage

My daughter is a physics geek.  As a robot commentator the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.  At the end of the day, our ability to enter new spheres of spaces depends on the propulsion of our machines.  I have always been fascinated by the 1968 science fiction movie, The Fantastic Voyage, and our ability to navigate the smallest of molecules within the living body.  In this remarkable age,  Otto Klement’s and Jerome Bixby’s story now looks like a premonition…

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart, Germany have engineered a “robotic-scallop” that is only a fraction of a millimeter in size and that is capable of swimming in biomedically relevant fluids (such a blood, sweat and tears).  Designing robots on the micro or nano scale (like, small enough to fit inside your body) is all about simplicity. There just isn’t room for complex motors or actuation systems. There’s barely room for any electronics whatsoever, not to mention batteries, which is why robots that can swim inside your bloodstream or zip around your eyeballs are often driven by magnetic fields. However, magnetic fields drag around anything and everything that happens to be magnetic, so in general, they’re best for controlling just one single microrobot robot at a time. Ideally, you’d want robots that can swim all by themselves, and a robotic micro-scallop, announced last week in Nature Communications, could be the answer.

When we’re thinking about robotic microswimmers motion, the place to start is with understanding how fluids (specifically, biological fluids) work at very small scales. Blood doesn’t behave like water does, in that blood is what’s called a non-Newtonian fluid. All that this means is that blood behaves differently (it changes viscosity, becoming thicker or thinner) depending on how much force you’re exerting on it. The classic example of a non-Newtonian fluid is oobleck, which you can make yourself by mixing one part water with two parts corn starch. Oobleck acts like a liquid until you exert a bunch of force on it (say, by rapidly trying to push your hand into it), at which point its viscosity increases to the point where it’s nearly solid.

These non-Newtonian fluids represent most of the liquid stuff that you have going on in your body (blood, joint fluid, eyeball goo, etc), which, while it sounds like it would be more complicated to swim through, is actually anopportunity for robots. Here’s why:

At very small scales, robotic actuators tend to be simplistic and reciprocal. That is, they move back and forth, as opposed to around and around, like you’d see with a traditional motor. In water (or another Newtonian fluid), it’s hard to make a simple swimming robot out of reciprocal motions, because the back and forth motion exerts the same amount of force in both directions, and the robot just moves forward a little, and backward a little, over and over. Biological microorganisms generally do not use reciprocal motions to get around in fluids for this exact reason, instead relying on nonreciprocal motions of flagella and cilia.

However, if we’re dealing with a non-Newtonian fluid, this rule (no joke, it’s actually a theorem called the Scallop theorem) doesn’t apply anymore, meaning that it should be possible to use reciprocal movements to get around. A team of researchers led by Prof. Peer Fischer at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems,  have figured out how, and appropriately enough, it’s a microscopic robot that’s based on the scallop.

As shown in the above video, these robots are true swimmers. This particular version is powered by an external magnetic field, but it’s just providing energy input, not dragging the robot around directly as other microbots do. And there are plenty of kinds of micro-scale reciprocal actuators that could be used, like piezoelectrics, bimetal strips, shape memory alloys, or heat or light-actuated polymers. There’s lots of design optimizations that can be made as well, like making the micro-scallop more streamlined or “optimizing its surface morphology,” whatever that means.

The researchers say that the micro-scallop is more of a “general scheme” for micro-robots rather than a specific micro-robot that’s intended to do anything in particular. It’ll be interesting to see how this design evolves, hopefully to something that you can inject into yourself to fix everything that could ever be wrong with you. Ever.

I have written about nano-robotics previously, wether google’s human project or new robotic contact lenses (see articles), however the Max Planck Institute’s novel motion technique could be a game changer in the same way soft robotics is revolutionizing mobile space.   Rev up those interspace engines, as the next frontier could be you!

Robot on Aisle Four

Finding a light bulb in Home Depot is a very lonely experience, as you are often alone wondering how to convert conventional wattage into LED amps.  I say lonely as the orange apron is no where to be found.  Lowe’s thinks it has found a way to be competitive in the retail landscape in time for the holiday season.

 Meet OSHbot the newest employees of Lowe’s Orchard Supply Hardware Co. store in San Jose, California, where the first robots will be located.  Lowe’s Customers will be able to communicate their needs verbally or by selecting items from a touch-screen menu displayed on OSHbot. Customers can also show OSHbot what they are looking for by displaying an item, such as a screw, in front of the robot’s 3D scanner.  OSHbot will then immediately report on whether the item is in stock, and will lead customers through the store to locate it.

“Retail really hasn’t changed much in the last couple hundred years,” Kyle Nel, executive director of Lowe’s Innovation Lab, says in the video. “The robots are the first thing that can really change the customer experience.”

The robot uses the same sensors as Google’s driverless cars to avoid collisions and every night it updates its map of the store’s inventory.

OSHbot

Nel told Ad Age that the robots aren’t meant to replace retail workers.”What our sales associates are amazing at doing and what they love spending time on are consulting and helping customers with their projects and solving their problems,” Nel said. “We can let the robots answer questions like, ‘where are the hammers?'”

Lowe’s worked with Singularity University and a startup called Fellow Robots to make the customer service machines a reality.  However, Lowe’s hasn’t said whether it will expand the robot program to other stores, so I will have to wait until it arrives in New York.  As we enter a more robotic age, sales associates have to now compete not only for sales per square foot but product knowledge with an ever growing database.  I wonder when will they wear orange aprons?

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