Solar panel cleaning method goes 
 intergalactic – as NASA investigates 
 airflow cleaning of its Mars rovers 

The idea of life on Mars has mesmerized mankind for centuries. Much remains to be discovered, but it’s an established fact that the atmosphere on Mars gradually coats solar panels in dust and reduces efficiency, just as happens here on earth.

NASA has two roving vehicles – ‘Opportunity’ and ‘Spirit’ – that have been exploring sand dunes and sedimentary rock on Mars since 2004. Though originally designed to fulfill a 90-day mission, the solar powered vehicles have beaten all expectations as to the duration of their working life – Spirit eventually stopped working in 2010 when its solar panels became covered in dust, and Opportunity is still ‘alive’ today.

The vehicle’s future is uncertain though. The same winds that have blown away dust from the solar panels could yet cover them again, and right now Mars is experiencing unprecedented dust storms.

Photograph of Mars without and with the sandstorm. (photo: NASA)

Even without epic Martian dust storms, a previous 90-day mission by the ‘Sojourner’ rover saw its power output reduced by 23% by the mission’s end. Similarly, accumulating dust here on earth reduces solar panel energy production – after one month by up to a third, even in arid regions like the Middle East, unless they are expensively maintained.

A Mars rover can be angled to ‘catch’ surface winds and blow accumulated dust away, but earth’s solar farm panels are fixed in place. This is where London based startup ‘Aerial Power’ comes in, which has developed panel cleaning by using specially adapted ‘cleaning’ drones.

Their highly accurate self-flying drones create downdraft over the solar panels – row by row – the downward airflow from which is enough to blow away the dust.

The Startup will target sun-rich arid regions of the world. Solar power production is booming in these areas, but the cleaning costs are high and logistically challenging. So the startup has been conducting tests in India’s Rajasthan desert.

Monitoring of solar panels in the Rajasthan desert (photo: Aerial Power Ltd)

“Our aim is to reduce operation and maintenance costs for solar panels, and therefore raise panel profitability to allow for solar farms to be established in more marginal areas. With our cleaning drones we anticipate being able to significantly reduce the frequency of any manual wet cleans” the inventor and founder Ridha Azaiz explains.

The US Patent and Trademark Office – finding the cleaning method novel – recently granted patent No. US 10,046,857. This is in addition to the previous granting of European (EP 3077882) and Australian (AU 2015285989) patents. (photo: NASA)

 Australia’s increasingly benign 
 environment for drones 

Innovative drone company, Aerial Power, is poised to benefit from the growingly drone-friendly environment in Australia with patent protection for its solar panel cleaning drone.

The recent easing of restrictions means that Australia has become a more attractive place to research and develop drone-based applications. The country’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) reduced regulatory requirements in September, which means that flying drones under 2kg in weight no longer need a ‘remotely piloted aircraft’ operator’s certificate.

The country has immense potential to produce large quantities of solar power and its current 6GW is expected to double by 2020 (according to the ‘Renew Economy’).

Indeed, a dozen plants that have recently been granted funding from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency are now in the ‘financial close’ stage, according to ‘Large Scale solar industry takes off as 12 new plants secure finance’ (the Guardian, 16 May 2017). 

If left unchecked for a month the dirt accumulation known as ‘soiling’ can reduce their energy production by up to 35%, or up to 80% following a single sandstorm. Our drone will slash the costs of cleaning solar panels by up to 60%, as our cleaning method requires no expensive installation of custom-built machinery (as happens with automated cleaning), conserves precious water by ‘dry cleaning’, and improves labour conditions and cuts costs by eliminating the need for teams of people hand-cleaning panels in harsh and dry conditions. 

Australia is relatively new to large-scale solar power production, and opened its first commercial-scale power plant in 2011. However it now has a total solar capacity of almost 6,000 megawatts, and more than 20 more PV projects are due to start producing power in 2017. 

Furthermore, the country could become a major energy exporter in the future: It  is also pursuing the export of liquid nitrogen not a fuel itself, but an ‘energy carrier’ that is thought to be the most efficient method of energy storage. A significant deal signed this January envisages shipping liquid nitrogen from Victoria to Japan from 2020, and represents a move towards the so called ‘hydrogen economy’, in which power will be created and then transported as liquid nitrogen, which can then be turned into energy.

So with the outlook for solar plant production and technology looking rosy, we are targeting the Australia for research and development of our ‘Solar Brush’ panel-cleaning drone. To this end the relevant patent (AU2015285989) has been granted by the Australian authorities, and thus we see our drone having a bright future in the country.

[Update] 01.12.2017: CASA has updated the requirements for commercial operations in the sub-2kg category. CASA needs to be notified using an Aviation Reference Number (ARN) five business days prior to flight. The number can be obtained from CASA and stays valid for 24 months. [/Update]

 SolarBrush cleaning drone could 
 alleviate growing electricity and 
 water crisis in Central Asia 

Innovative drone company, Aerial Power, has this week participated in the New Energy Global Startup Fest in the Kazak capital, Astana, against the backdrop of escalating regional tensions over water and energy supplies.

The founder and inventor of the revolutionary SolarBrush solar panel cleaning drone stated that “our cleaning solution doesn’t use water, or for that matter, teams of manual labour, and so we could open up large areas of Kazakhstan that currently waste precious water in maintaining their solar farms”.

The availability of fresh water and dependable electricity has been highlighted since the break up of the Soviet Union. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan were all once part of the Soviet Union, and until the county’s breakup in 1991 had in place agreements to share water and electricity – with water being transported north from mountainous Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and electricity heading south and electricity heading south from energy rich Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

But according to the BBC’s article ‘Will Central Asia fight over water?’, published on the 25th of October, the issue has already been responsible for unrest and could lead to war.

By slashing the operating costs of solar power plants, SolarBrush is poised to shift the economics of green energy output and make it possible to build new solar farms in what until now have been uneconomic locations, owing to the short supply of labour and water.

 Aerial Power in India 

In a company visit to India Aerial Power partnered with several companies to test the cleaning mechanism of the SolarBrush UAV. This was also to initiate the future collaboration involving our exclusive technology.

The Indian government has ambitions to grow its installed solar power capacity twenty times by 2022 – from today’s 5 GW to 100 GW.