As a young man in his twenties, Derek Chase didn’t think he was on a particularly compelling career path. He landed a summer job in California working for a guy running a solar installation company out of his garage. The industry was new, interesting, and constantly evolving. Derek was tasked to help install a solar unit that would heat a residential pool.
“It was the first time I got to see solar being used for a real world purpose, in this case, heating a swimming pool,” Derek said. “It was a really basic introduction to solar and when I walked away, the thing was still working and making power on its own. That was really addictive to me. That’s when I fell in love with the industry.”
Over the next decade, Derek would make a name for himself in the solar industry with his business, Sun System Technology. “My favorite part was the quality control side of things, because that brought referrals and adoption,” Derek said. Sun System addressed a rapidly growing need in the marketplace for professional solar operations and maintenance services. The number of installers was greatly outpacing the number of specialized technicians able to offer repair and maintenance to solar technology, both on the commercial and residential scale.
After enjoying nearly a decade of success with Sun Systems, Derek and his partners sold the business; but Derek knew it wouldn’t be long before he was onto the next idea. He just didn’t know what it would be yet.
“We were at a garage sale a few years ago,” Derek recalled. “I saw this toy robot and thought, ‘it would be really cool if we had a big one of those robots to cruise around solar sites.” And thus the idea for the first solar operations and maintenance robot was born.
OnSight Technologies creates first solar operations & maintenance robot
With this vision percolating in his mind, Derek founded OnSight Technologies, another solar operations and maintenance company with a completely new spin; robots. Derek’s new business was accepted into the Growth Factor Accelerator Program in Sacramento, California. While participating in the program, Derek was able to meet his business partners, including a robotics engineer.
“The goal was to create an autonomous Roomba-like robot that can roam around sites with thousands or millions of solar panels on them,” Derek said. “It can take pictures and gather data and use machine learning to analyze that data to help people better operate their systems.”
The problem: size and scale of commercial solar
The problem for commercial-scale solar system operators is inherent in the sheer size and scale of these installations. Commercial-scale solar, the kind you see out in a field or the desert used by utility companies can cover thousands of acres, containing hundreds of thousands solar panels all carefully wired together and operating in tandem. These systems are worth millions of dollars and must be carefully monitored to maximize their energy output.
Using human labor to monitor these solar fields is inherently inefficient, costly, and often dangerous. Overgrown grass and plants under solar panels can be a fire hazard and is an invitation for snakes and other animals to take up residency. Summertime heat and remote desert locations further compound the challenges of manual inspections. Dispatching support teams for these sites can take days, if not weeks, depending on the physical location of your site and support team availability.
Every panel must be checked for a variety of issues such as loose wiring, damage to the panels, bird nests, tumbleweeds, soil erosion, and wear and tear caused by extreme climate. This can take a whole team days in the blazing sun.
Most prevalent expenses of operating a solar field
At commercial-scale, the largest expenses of operating a solar field are vegetation management and module washing, accounting for nearly 60% of the operations and maintenance costs. Vegetation must be actively managed from the outset to prevent overgrowth which can complicate maintenance and repairs to solar units. A soiling monitor, to know when solar modules need to be washed, is a critical component of solar field operations and maintenance.
The OnSight Technologies robot specializes in capturing and reporting on these two critical data components: the height of vegetation and the respective cleanliness of modules. Using multiple sensors to reliably capture and analyze data, the robot sends information to the O&M team to make proactive decisions about upkeep and maintenance in the field.
“Before these robots, thermal camera drones were the next best solution for operations and maintenance,” Derek explained. “Drones are really cheap, but they only capture a moment in time, and within a few weeks the images are no longer useful. Plus, you still had to send a drone operator onsite to operate the drone.”
The teleoperated OnSight Technologies robot can revisit problem areas, capture new data, and send updated images on demand, making this the most comprehensive solution for commercial-scale solar field operators.
“The robot performs inspections on large solar farms where it’s difficult or expensive for a human to go,” Derek said. “These mundane inspections are really costly for humans to do. With the OnSight Technologies robot, you are able to inspect your solar farm remotely, improve quality control, and reduce labor costs.” With OnSight, teleoperators have 24/7 access to meaningful, real-time data whenever and wherever it is needed.
“See” more with ground-level “eyes”
The OnSight Technologies robot allows solar field operators to see their units at the ground level, as opposed to aerial footage from drones and airplanes that only capture the top-down view of the units, neglecting critical wiring and connections on the underside of the units.
“We are the number one robot ground inspection company in the world,” Derek said. The OnSight Technologies robots are already hard at work in solar fields around the country, using machine learning to improve their data collection and analysis skills.
“We are improving and adding more sensors to the robot so it can see and hear more while out in the field,” Derek said. “The more data the units collect, the more opportunities they have to learn what is ‘good’, ‘bad,’ or ‘broken’ in the field.”
Implementing robotic technologies at the commercial-scale
As more national and international corporations and utility companies look at installing solar solutions on the commercial-scale at one or more locations, adopting automated technology like the OnSight Technology robot is going to be essential for success. Imagine, having one operator who monitors the input from multiple observational robots simultaneously, and can make critical decisions for multiple fields from one convenient location.
“What we set out to build was a nationwide infrastructure,” Derek explained. “So if you are a Target or other commercial company interested in solar solutions, you can use one company across the board.” This solution is more cost-effective, reducing travel costs to bring experts out to service your units.
While the OnSight Technologies robot is still in prototyping and beta testing mode, interested partners can learn more and pre-order their solar field operations and maintenance robot at OnSightops.com.