After years in the solar farm industry, Derek Chase was looking into different drone companies to handle aerial flyovers. But he found these companies couldn’t provide the information he needed, which was found on the ground, under the panels, where the wires are.
One day with his son and daughter, while browsing a garage sale in Fair Oaks, Chase came across a little robot with cameras that could be driven around. If only he had a larger version of this, he thought, it would be perfect. He purchased it and took it home to tinker with it.
Two years later, Chase had not only sold his solar maintenance company, NovaSource, but had also been accepted into the first cohort at the Growth Factory. Through this accelerator, he connected with a group who was working on a project for NASA and agreed to join forces. They raised $600,000 in a pre-seed round, he says, and OnSight Technology officially launched in 2021. OnSight’s remotely controlled robots — weighing about 500 pounds — use AI to capture images at solar farms.
“This is for really large solar farms: a million solar panels in the middle of the desert,” Chase says. “Before these robots, it was difficult to get labor out there. People have to wander around in 110-degree heat looking for issues.”
The biggest issue is the connectors that link each solar panel. An improper installation or loose connection can cause fires and damage the system, Chase says. After getting dropped off, OnSight robots use thermal cameras to identify heat signatures and detect malfunctioning panels. They also have 4K optical zoom capabilities to take high-quality pictures used to generate reports. Using real-time computing, the robots then send alerts to the team for further investigation.
At a solar conference last March, Chase met Zachary Nichols, director of operations and maintenance for McCarthy Building Companies. Nichols observed how the robots’ thermal imaging capabilities could help detect Mc4 connectors that may be overheating in the field.
To validate their efficiency, he conducted a series of tests at sites in Arizona and Texas. In one study comparing infrared detection of anomalies, he says, the robots detected 30 percent more than humans did. Another study involving scanning and geo-locating panels showed the robots were more efficient and reduced costs by eliminating rework, making the tasks one-third cheaper, Nichols says.
“That was the eye-opener for us,” he says. “This is bringing value right away, especially for tasks that are monotonous to humans. … It was just a touch slower, but in the long run, you’re talking about a third cheaper than having humans out there with 100 percent accuracy rate.”
He highlighted the robots’ other high-tech capabilities such as torque mark identification, wire management and dual cameras to create a 360-degree plant model and fire detection, among others. Currently, McCarthy has four robots in operation and plans to bring in another 10 to 12 by next year. With a seed round led by Moneta Ventures and co-lead Stäubli Robotics, OnSight recently raised above $3 million.
Sales began in February of this year. But Chase plans to continue making modifications to the technology. “We’re continuing to build out the AI and neural network. But there are technical hurdles in getting the robot to analyze certain things,” he says. “It does drive itself half the time. Our goal is to make it completely autonomous.”
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