California company says robots can aid solar farm efficiency

One of the most attractive promises robotics as a forward-facing industry makes is savings in time and labor — and thereby costs — in a plethora of different fields. While online retail giant Amazon’s pursuit of economic efficiency through warehouse automation (as represented by their $775 million acquisition of Kiva Robotics in early 2012) is perhaps the most visible example in recent years, they’re hardly alone.

This week, California company Alion Energy announced its intent to push for efficiency in an entirely different area through the introduction of a two-part automated solution to the construction and maintenance of large-scale solar energy farms. The two parts are ROVER, which installs solar panels, and SPOT, which cleans them. These robots, Alion claims, will double solar panel installation speed while halving labor requirements, as well as reorienting what labor does remain from “low-skilled tasks including bolt-tightening, ditch-digging, and hauling” to “high-skill tasks including electrical work, concrete production, [and] machine and robotics operations.”

This move toward automation, CEO Mark Kingsley claims in the company’s press release, represents a fundamental change in the nature and economic competitiveness of the solar energy industry insofar as “through using robotic installation and cleaning technologies, we’ve eliminated flaws that plague the installation process. Now, we can build plants that are not only the most cost-effective solution within the solar mix, but have a roadmap to deliver solar electricity at costs that can compete with any generation source.” In other words, they can help make solar energy more attractive by making it less expensive.

Energy Business Review reports that Alion plans to invest $25 million to develop the technology, with $10 million raised so far and $15 million more expected through Series C financing. The company has raised a total of about $60 million in debt and equity from an investing group consisting of  Sequoia Capital, Bright Capital and Global Cleantech Capital.

[ photos courtesy of Alion Energy ]