Drones and robots are being used more regularly to help build and maintain solar installations. SunPower is one of the leaders in using new this new technology. It is about to begin construction of its new “Oasis” power plants in North America and China. These massive projects utilized drones to fly over proposed sites to gather data. That information was then fed into computers that use cutting edge software to evaluate thousands of designs and make recommends for the best options to pursue. That allowed project managers to easily compare potential sites. then customize configurations in order to make the best use of the available space.

Tom Werner, president and CEO of SunPower, said in a press announcement:

“An Oasis solar power plant may be designed 90 percent faster than the time required to design conventional solar power plants. While flat, rectangular-shaped sites are required for other trackers on the market, Oasis can take advantage of unused irregularly shaped areas and slopes up to ten degrees to generate up to 60 percent more energy than conventional technology installed at the same site. Each additional ten acres of usable land on a site may represent two to four more megawatts of power, which can significantly impact a project’s bottom line.”

The new systems are also being designed with room for agriculture. As solar power becomes widely accepted, it’s not always easy to find space to locate large solar arrays. That’s one reason that floating solar projects are becoming more common around the world. The distance between rows leaves just the right amount of room for certain farming activities. SunPower is partnering with the University of California, Davis to find out which crops will grow best in these specialized circumstances.

Solar panels typically convert about 20% of the sun’s energy into electricity. But contaminants like dirt, pollen, and bird droppings on the surface of the panels can lower that rate, which costs the solar operator money. When SunPower acquired Greenbotics in 2013, it gained access to a system of robots that can clean the surface of the solar panels at its facilities. Keeping the panels clean maximizes solar efficiency over time.

The robotic system uses 75% less water than cleaning the panels by hand. The robots are programmed to operate at night when they don’t interfere with the sunlight falling on the panels. According to SunPower, the new robotic method is twice as fast as the current robotic cleaning technology and 10 times faster than manual cleaning methods.