SunPower is using drones and robotics to improve the development and operation of large-scale solar projects. Photo courtesy of SunPower.

The commercial and civic benefits of drones are growing—from surveying the eye of a hurricane to helping farmers maintain healthy crops—enabling researchers to imagine new possibilities for the emerging technology. Now, researchers think drones can help the solar industry.  

With the help of the SunShot Initiative, SunPower is utilizing robots and high-flying drones to improve the development, construction, and operation of large-scale solar energy systems. Because large-scale systems encounter a unique set of siting challenges, the resulting inefficiencies can persist throughout the construction and project management phases of a project and cause costly delays that impact overall system value. 

As a part of its SunShot Technology to Market award, SunPower developed technology critical to the launch of the SunPower® Oasis GEO™ (global energy optimization) system, a key component of the SunPower® Oasis® platform that uses a combination of drone imagery and advanced software to speed the development of large-scale solar projects.

High in the sky, drones are used to scout potential locations, flying over acres of land to record images and assess topography. These images are then used in conjunction with SunPower’s software to develop 3-D system designs that recommend site layouts that will both maximize energy production and yield the best financial results. During the construction period, the drones can also help track progress, reducing on-site management time and enabling project developers to quickly deploy resources.

The Energy Department also helped develop the technology behind the self-cleaning robots featured in the Oasis platform. Because soiling—dust and dirt coverage of solar panels—can impact solar generation levels, keeping clean panels helps to maintain consistent energy output levels and ensure optimal system performance. Startup Greenbotics began development on an automated panel-cleaning solution under DOE’s 2012 National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition, and as a result of its success, the company was acquired by SunPower in 2013. The self-cleaning robots featured in the Oasis platform can clean 10 megawatts worth of panels in 10 hours, enabling SunPower to clean panels 10 times faster and use 75% less water than conventional cleaning methods.  

Together, these software and automated solutions are helping SunPower offer customers a comprehensive project management solution that designs large-scale projects 90% faster than traditional processes, mitigating inefficiencies and lowering overall project costs.

Learn more about the SunShot Initiative’s Technology to Market program and the Cleantech University Prize.