Success with a niche mine solar panel cleaning robot has given a Western Australian electrical engineering firm a strong platform on which to mount a potentially significant export venture. The firm will be among the pacesetters providing a glimpse at the future of Australia’s robotics manufacturing sector at this year’s Austmine 2023 conference in Adelaide.
Innovative Energy Solutions and its Solar Energy Robotics subsidiary developed a solution to a costly problem at a WA mine site.
The Autonomous Solar Cleaning Robot (ASCR) has since been deployed at several sites and has been commercialised.
With the help of an AusIndustry Modern Manufacturing Initiative grant, IES is now looking to scale local manufacturing of ASCR robotics.
Solar Energy Robotics CEO Ben Brayford says Australia’s federal government is investing heavily to grow a high-value robotics manufacturing capability in the country.
In WA, the state government is also pumping circa-$30 million into the Australian Automation and Robotics Precinct (AARP) north of Perth. Solar Energy Robotics has been among the early users of the facility, demonstrating the ASCR to potential customers and collaborators.
Brayford said at a recent precinct open day 2017 start-up IES was providing specialised electrical contracting services to BHP and other WA miners when it was called on to try to solve the increasingly widespread problem of dust coating solar PV units powering critical mine infrastructure such as communication towers and pump stations.
Manual cleaning was potentially unsafe, repetitive and costly.
Dust build-up, which often outpaces cleaning, damages and reduces the effectiveness of solar panels, and battery charging, putting operation of dependent infrastructure at risk.
Available robotic systems needed to be adapted to meet local mine-site conditions and needs, and this ultimately led IES down the path to its locally produced autonomous product.
“BHP were the early adopters of the technology and were very supportive in the development and testing process,” Brayford said at the AARP event.
“The current ASCR product is designed for permanent installation to clean small solar arrays in active mine areas.
“It is now a standard specification by engineering [departments] for preventative maintenance of small solar arrays powering critical infrastructure at several Australian mine sites. Our target is to expand this across the Australian mining sector and in other market segments such as off-grid power supply for remote communities and the defence sector.”
IES leases or sells the units.
“We have developed a new model that is designed to autonomously dry clean solar farms in the renewable sector,” Brayford said.
“This model is in the testing phase and we are looking for early adopters in the mining and renewables sector to validate the product for reliable use in remote and harsh conditions.”
IES, which has grown from its three founders to more than 125 personnel, is working with the Sydney University Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR) to commercialise the autonomous solar farm cleaning robot.
Brayford said testing had shown it to be reliable “with proven autonomous operations in remote and harsh conditions such as remote mine sites”.
“The product will be designed to reduce the preventive maintenance costs of solar farms, making renewable green solar energy the most efficient, economical and environmentally sustainable solution for power generation.
“It has global export potential for the booming renewables sector.
“Products developed from the intellectual property generated as part of the project will also have global export potential in the emerging solar farm market and will be important technology to help Australia and the world transition to net zero emissions.”
Brayford told InvestMETS.com Austmine 2023 was an important forum for IES and Solar Energy Robotics.
“After four years of validating the product, and market research to understand the value proposition on mine sites, we are now working with corporate to understand the full HSE, cost and energy efficiency benefits at the enterprise scale,” he said.
“Austmine is the first mining event that IES and SER have attended for marketing the ASCR to corporate.”