Solar panel robot doesn't need water to clean

Cleaning solar panels is tough work, but Miraikikai's duster bot apparently can get to all the nooks and crannies with its swiveling brush.

Sandstorms are an issue for solar power in Saudi Arabia, but robots can help. Tohru Miyake/Miraikikai

Saudi Arabia wants to spend over $100 billion to build vast solar arrays and reduce its dependency on oil to generate electricity. But desert sandstorms pose a major challenge to keeping solar panels clean and efficient.

Japanese startup Miraikikai is developing a solution to getting rid of this pesky dust and grit: a cleaning robot that doesn't need water.

The firm has produced the Wall Walker wall and ceiling robot, and recently unveiled a prototype solar panel cleaner built with researchers at Kagawa University.

It weighs about 24 pounds -- light enough to be carried by one person -- and measures about 22 inches across.

It cleans with a rotating brush and can operate for up to two hours on a battery charge.

The robot's efficacy has been demonstrated in arid regions, Miraikikai said in a release, and the machine can clean panels as well as human workers.

Making optimal use of the device would result in low-cost cleaning even in areas with relatively cheap labor costs.

The startup plans to market the robot next year in the Middle East and North Africa, areas where demand for solar-generated electricity is growing and water is scarce.

Nomadd is a similar robot developed at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia. It has only four moving parts and can maneuver over gaps in solar panels.

More solar-panel-cleaning robots are in the pipeline in hopes of claiming some of Saudi Arabia's giant maintenance market.

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