Every day in the Arava region in southern Israel a group of drones, called pelicans, carry solar panels cleaning robots, called plecos (like the fish known for their ability to clean algae from aquariums), at work. It could be a story from our What’s Flying There? book, instead it is a project by BladeRanger, an Israeli company specialized in managing autonomous robots with unmanned aerial vehicles. Their first application is for the inspection and cleaning of photovoltaic installations.

Cleaning solar panels is a critical operation, especially in arid regions where dust accumulation can have a severe and detrimental effect on the productivity of solar arrays. Take desert solar farms, for instance. Operators need an efficient way to clean the endless rows of solar panels, and it turns out robots are perfectly suited for the job. There are many startups working on robot cleaners to keep the energy production high and reduce the cleaning costs. BladeRanger might have found the ultimate solution putting drones and robots together at work.

The drones are in charge of bringing the 3D printed automated and water-free robots to the solar field and taking them home once their cleaning job is done. Home is a solar-powered hangar where the units recharge and cohabit. “No humans are necessary” says the company CEO. This drone-robot collaboration would replace manual cleaning, large robotic solutions usually attached to the solar infrastructure and small machines that require control and manual transfer.

The plecos can move autonomously in the solar field thanks to an algorithm that manages them; while the pelicans are equipped with a special ‘arm’ for the connection and transportation of the robots. BladeRanger is currently working on the enhancement of this part of the drone. In 2016 the company created the prototype, they expect to have to plecos in action by mid-2017 for residential solar panel installations and the complete system with robots, drones and charging station to be operative by 2018. They also envision more application areas for this technology in the future: from cleaning buildings, skyscrapers and complex structures, to security and surveillance and even farming.

If you think robots will eventually rebel and enslave humanity, it might give you some comfort to know that a few of these machines are furthering the noble cause of renewable energy.

Next Nature Network was a guest of Vibe Israel and took part in the Vibe Eco Impact Tour in December 2016 to explore sustainability initiatives in Israel.

Image: Alessia Andreotti - BladeRanger project displayed at Capital Nature.

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