The Role of Robotics in Agrovoltaics: 5 Interesting Developments

Agrovoltaic farming — also known as agrovoltaics or “sun sharing” — uses solar photovoltaic (PV) technology to make agriculture more environmentally and economically sustainable. Farmers can harness solar energy to reduce their carbon footprint, consume fewer natural resources and make the agriculture industry as a whole more efficient.


While agrovoltaics is a promising strategy, it only works if the PV systems are properly utilized. That’s where robotics comes into play. These five interesting developments have expanded the role of robotics in agrovoltaics and helped farmers optimize their solar technology.


Leveraging AI to Optimize Agrovoltaic Systems

Agrovoltaics’ success largely depends on the relationship between PV panels and the farm’s daily operations. Each panel’s location, orientation and condition directly impact crop growth and the farm’s energy consumption. Artificial intelligence is the ideal tool for finding panel locations where they can get maximum sunlight and energy production.


Machine learning algorithms continuously gather and analyze large datasets, identify hidden patterns and make informed recommendations that traditional monitoring systems such as linear programming can’t achieve. The insights into each solar panel’s performance and a farmer’s intimate knowledge of the land allow them to find the best locations.


For example, AI can determine if a PV system isn’t getting enough sunlight using artificial neural networks to detect excessive shading. Insufficient sunlight is the primary reason solar panels underperform, so this insight alone is a key piece of the puzzle for agrovoltaic optimization.


With this ongoing innovation, agrovoltaics is forecasted to have a compound annual growth rate of 10.1%. Public awareness is also on the rise, as the support of proposed solar projects increased by 81.8% in two U.S. communities when agrovoltaics were featured.


Another recent study from the European Union Joint Research Centre found the EU could gain about 944 gigawatts in solar capacity from agrovoltaics development while using just one percent of currently occupied farmland. By comparison, the EU’s total solar capacity was just 211 gigawatts in 2022.


Seeing Into the Future

Another valuable feature of AI is its predictive capabilities. It analyzes relevant historical data such as weather patterns, solar panel sensors, previous crop performances and electricity consumption to forecast future crop growth accurately. With this information, farmers can adjust their land management strategies both in terms of crop yield and sustainability.


Predictive analytics is especially important for solar panel maintenance. AI algorithms can constantly monitor each panel’s microinverters, DC power optimizers, wiring systems and other components that control energy output. Any damage or defect is immediately identified, allowing the owners to fix the panel or adjust its location. Proactive maintenance ensures more solar energy production while saving farmers time and money on repairs.


Another great example is AI’s accurate weather forecasting because it can take decades of data from various sources, including temperature, humidity, precipitation, wind intensity and soil moisture levels. These details are crucial to understand for solar energy production and crop growth. If farmers can anticipate upcoming climate conditions, they can adjust their agrovoltaic systems with greater efficiency.


Autonomous Crop Maintenance

Robotics can also play key roles in autonomous crop maintenance, primarily through drones, sensors and other small monitoring devices. Farmers can fly their drones anywhere on their property with weather conditions permitting to get a bird’s eye view of their fields. Constant monitoring allows them to spot issues with their crops and agrovoltaic systems instantly.


For example, the drone’s camera might reveal animal activity or PV panel damage on the far side of the property. An optical crop sensor can direct light waves at crop leaves and discover when some aren’t getting enough sunlight. Sensors in the ground can do the same thing to identify diseases or pest infestations.


Soil quality is a crucial component of crop maintenance robotics can assist with. Robots equipped with AI-powered soil sensors can gather detailed soil data, including temperature, humidity, pH levels, moisture content and the density of key nutrients. These insights are great for agrovoltaics because farmers can see how newly installed PV panels affect soil quality.


New Installation Methods

One of the greatest strengths of agrovoltaics is the natural protection solar panels provide. They shelter crops from extreme weather and help the soil conserve more water while producing clean electricity. New installation methods have made systems even more defensive against the elements.


In today’s farming applications, PV panels are paired with shade-tolerant crops that benefit more from filtered sunlight while others remain in full sunlight. This simple adjustment has allowed for greater water conservation, soil quality and yields in agrovoltaic farmlands. Robotics have opened up even more ways to optimize panel installations.


For example, Swiss start-up company Insolight uses optic micro-tracking technology to create dynamic light passages during electricity generation. Its solar panels are translucent, enabling farmers to control the sunlight their crops receive without changing the panel or crop’s location. Again, this feature would be ideal for shade-tolerant plants that often work with agrovoltaic systems.


Solar-Powered Farming Robots

Another recent development that could take agrovoltaics to new heights is solar-powered farm robots. U.S. robotics start-up Aigen has created a solar-electric farming vehicle aimed at eliminating fossil fuels from farming. It’s already received pre-orders for more than 20,000 acres of farmland where the machines will navigate, weed and monitor crops without any chemicals or fuels.


Today’s robots can also take over much of the manual labor involved in agriculture. In early 2023, scientists with Sony Computer Science Laboratories developed a robot called SynRobo that can care for various plant species, specifically when grown beneath solar panels and in densely harvested areas.


SynRobo is equipped with a 360° camera, a robotic arm and a four-wheel mechanism that allows it to navigate uneven terrain. It’s capable of automated sowing, pruning and selective harvesting techniques. As SynRobo and similar robots continue to advance, farmers will be able to increase their crop diversity and production while minimizing their land impact.


The Future of Farming is Now

As agrovoltaic projects begin to take shape worldwide, it has become clear that solar power and robotics could be the combination that transforms the agriculture industry. Agrovoltaic systems are changing how humanity grows food and the introduction of intelligent automated technologies can help us perfect this new farming practice.


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