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solar power robot clean water la plata national university
Solar power is sending robots off to duty on harbor clean-up and other environmental chores (photo courtesy of La Plata National University).

Clean Power

Solar Power To Propel Small But Mighty Water-Cleaning Robot

Solar power is sending robots off to duty on harbor clean-up and other environmental chores.

Fresh off its victory in the 2022 World Cup, the nation of Argentina is now gearing up to tackle the massive problem of plastic pollution in waterways around South America and the Caribbean. The country’s premier academic institution, La Plata National University, has teamed up with the company Recyclamar Pampa Argentina to deploy solar power on a self-propelled, water-cleaning robot.

Putting Robots To Work, With Solar Power

The new solar power project joins the waste management experts from Recyclamar Pampa with the University’s Institute for Research in Electronics, Control and Signal Processing, which took care of the autonomous control system, among other tasks.

Conferring autonomous operation on the robot was a complex engineering feat that involved tailor-made models, controls, and the application of algorithms for the on-board sensors.

The robot is designed to capture floating waste, including microplastic particles and hydrocarbons as well as plastic bottles and other floating debris. The device can also reach submerged floatables below the surface, to a depth of about 40 centimeters (a little over 15 inches).

The decision was made to focus on surface and near-surface waters because that is where the bulk of floatable debris collects in rivers, lagoons, and ports.

A Solar-Powered Roomba In Every Port

Although the engineering was a complex task, the concept is a relatively simple one. It’s like a Roomba, but with solar power.

Dr. Juan Luis Rosendo of the Institute for Research in Electronics explains that “the operation is similar to a home robot vacuum cleaner, but with the difficulties involved in moving in a liquid medium and unstructured environments such as ports and rivers, where external disturbances are present and must be able to be compensated from the control of the robot.”

All else being equal, the water-cleaning robot could have been outfitted with a gasoline or diesel engine, or perhaps compressed natural gas or hydrogen fuel cells.

Considering the environmental purpose of the robot, though, fossil energy was a non-starter.

Fuel cells would provide a zero emission ride, except that hydrogen fuel is typically sourced from natural gas. Argentina is one of the nations angling to gain a leading position in the emerging green hydrogen market, but gas will continue to dominate in the near future.

Even if green hydrogen is available, solar power would still be a better fit for a water-cleaning robot, partly because the solar panels would provide a high-visibility showcase for the device.

In addition, with solar power a waterborne robot would not need to return to a fueling station to power up.

Solar Power For Robotic Regenerative Agriculture

Argentina’s new water-cleaning robot is just one example of the merging of solar power with robotic devices that perform environmental tasks. In one especially interesting bit of news, the US startup Aigen is gearing up to introduce a “scalable, solar-powered robotics platform for agriculture and soil regeneration,” with $4 million in seed money in its pocket.

The seed round took place last January, spearheaded by the global capital firm NEA along with the firms AgFunder, Global Founders Capital, and ReGen Ventures.

Regenerative agriculture is a set of principles focused on conserving and improve soil health. Regenerative techniques have been lingering on the fringes of Big Ag for generations. A sudden burst of interest in carbon sequestration has improved the bottom line benefits of investing in soil regeneration, which explains why leading players in the global agriculture industry are suddenly pricking up their ears.

The Big Ag angle is a good fit for Aigen’s business model. More than a solar-powered weed whacker, the Aigen robots reduce or eliminate chemical additives as well as reducing or eliminating the need for large earth-pounding machinery.

“Aigen’s technology leverages best-in-class AI and robotics to provide an elegant solution to several of humanity’s biggest problems. Their product unlocks nature’s superpower to sequester substantial amounts of atmospheric carbon at planetary scale,” explained Andrew Schoen, an NEA partner.

Aigen cites an IPCC study indicating that 60-75% of soil-embedded carbon has been “lost” in farmland.

Agriculture is among the few industries that have the potential to operate profitably in carbon-negative mode, notes Aigen co-founder Rich Wurden whose resume includes working on Tesla models S, X, and 3.

Speaking Of Tesla..

On second thought, let’s stick with solar power and robots. Another interesting new development in the solar-plus-robot area involves a new approach to designing ground-mounted utility scale solar power plants. Instead of propping solar panels up above the ground on frames at varying degrees of tilt, the Arizona startup Erthos has come up with a new robot-friendly PV formula in which solar panels are placed flat, directly on the ground.

Erthos states that the benefits of its Earth Mount Solar include “reduced capital costs, the elimination of underground installation risks (no steel pile foundations), no complex moving parts (such as motors, gears, actuators, and dampeners), higher power density per area (with a ground cover ratio of more than 90%, yielding an average energy gain of 114% per acre), and a simplified installation process with proprietary laminated PV cable assemblies that eliminate DC wire pulls, field terminations of MC4 connectors, cable ties, field labeling, and wire-management tasks.”

That’s quite a mouthful. The robots come in when the topic turns to maintenance. Keeping PV installations clear of dust and debris is an important operational feature for solar arrays. It’s not particularly an issue in rainy climates, but in many parts of the world PV operators need to factor in cleaning costs.

The flat, tightly packed design of Erthos’s PV arrays creates new opportunities for the efficient use of waterless robotic sweepers. The robots are designed to collect data on the panels as they sweep along, helping to troubleshoot any problems early on.

Farewell, Space Robot With Solar Power

Of course, no mention of solar power and robots would be complete without a mention of NASA, which has spurred the early stages of PV innovation to power various robotic devices since the launch of the Vanguard satellite in 1958.

The 1970s lunar Rovers were powered by batteries. Beginning in the 1990s, the Rovers reporting for duty on Mars sported PV panels, and solar power has made its mark on the Red Planet ever since.

The PV-powered Opportunity Rover pulled heartstrings back in 2019, when it was said to have broadcast a final, tragic missive from Mars. Opportunity had been surveying the terrain for 15 years.

This year it was the Insight Rover’s turn to turn in its shield. On December 19, NASA reported that InSight was unresponsive. The robot had been struggling with a dwindling power supply for months, following a nasty dust storm.

“…it’s assumed InSight may have reached its end of operations,” NASA reported somewhat gloomily. “It’s unknown what prompted the change in its energy; the last time the mission contacted the spacecraft was on Dec. 15, 2022.”

Perhaps the next Mars mission will include a rescue robot with a broom and handi-wipes.

Follow me on Trainwreck Twitter @TinaMCasey (for now).

Find me on LinkedIn: @TinaMCasey or Mastodon: @Casey or Post:  @tinamcasey

Photo credit: Water-cleaning robot with solar panels courtesy of La Plata National University.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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