MENLO PARK -- When it comes to robotics, most people think of driverless cars, manufacturing, moon rovers and 1950s science fiction. But now QBotix, a venture-backed startup based in Menlo Park, is bringing robotics to the fast-growing solar industry, which is eager to drive down installation costs.

Rooftop solar panels are ideal for many homes, commercial buildings and schools. But facilities with greater energy needs often turn to larger "groundmount" systems that feature a field of solar arrays. Some groundmount systems have "single axis" tracking that allows the solar arrays to follow the sun as it moves across the sky, much like a sunflower. Other systems have even more sophisticated "dual axis" tracking that also follows the sun's elevation, which slowly changes with the seasons.

Tracking systems are popular in California because the solar systems can harvest sunlight in the late afternoon, when there's peak demand on the state's power grid. But tracking systems are expensive to install -- they use a lot of steel and often require concrete bases and mechanical parts that are vulnerable to breakdown.

QBotix has created a robot, affectionately known as the "Solbot," that can adjust the angle of each photovoltaic array with remarkable precision, all while gathering data and feeding it back to the home office. The Solbot replaces the need for each solar array to have its own set of gears. And if one Solbot breaks down or needs maintenance, another one can be easily dispatched.


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"The robot is sexy and cool, but what it really allows us to do is take half the cost out of the system," said Wasiq Bokhari, the company's founder and CEO. Cost varies from project to project, but Bokhari said the Qbotix Tracking System offers dual axis performance at single axis pricing. The cost of solar panels has dropped dramatically in recent years as Chinese manufacturers have flooded the world market. Now the industry is looking to squeeze savings out of things like wiring and mounting, as well as sales cycles and permitting. Silicon Valley is littered with solar companies -- including Solyndra, MiaSolé and Nanosolar -- that tried to innovate in manufacturing but struggled to compete on cost.

"The Chinese have driven down the price of solar panels, and as a consequence it's been tough for companies in that part of the space to do much," said Forest Baskettcq, a general partner at venture capital firm NEA. "Most of the installed cost of solar is not the panel, it's the rest of the system. QBotix comes along and says 'we can knock out a lot of that cost.' "

Wasiq Bokhari, of Half Moon Bay, the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of QBotix, has his photo taken while standing next to one of the solar panels at
Wasiq Bokhari, of Half Moon Bay, the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of QBotix, has his photo taken while standing next to one of the solar panels at the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, Calif., on Wednesday, March 13, 2013. The Menlo Park based start-up makes a robotic tracking system, that has a single robot moving throughout a solar installation orientating the panels toward the sun. One QBotix robot can orientate up to 1,200 solar panels. The robot is replacing the need for expensive dual-axis tracking systems that require a lot of steel. (Doug Duran/Staff) ( Doug Duran )

NEA helped seed fund the company and led its $6.5 million A round of venture funding; the company has raised $12.5 million total. Baskett serves on QBotix's board. Other investors include Firelake Capital, Siemens VC and DFJ-JAIC. QBotix was also awarded a $1 million research award through the Department of Energy's SunShot Inititative.

"As far as I know, there is nothing else like it out there," said Baskett, who has seen his share of pitches from solar startups. "This is a great idea that's very clever."

QBotix's first commercial installation is at Alameda County's vast Santa Rita Jail in the East Bay city of Dublin, where a field of 32 trackers with four solar panels each blankets the hillside behind the jail. The Solbots, which are assembled at the company's Menlo Park headquarters, typically work in pairs, with one adjusting panels while the other is recharging.

A county jail might seem like a strange client. But the Santa Rita Jail, with more than 4,000 inmates, is the fifth largest county detention facility in the nation. It consumes more energy than any other government building in Alameda County, where officials are eager to reduce the jail's electricity demand and make sure it can function independently if there is a massive power outage. Besides solar power, the jail uses fuel cells and recently completed a battery-powered "microgrid," which allows the jail to run its own grid for extended periods.

"This is the greenest jail on the planet," said Bokhari, overlooking a warren of cells surrounded by barbed wire. "The jail has a microgrid, fuel cells and the first robotic tracking system."

The Solbot runs on a simple track that looks like a monorail line. It moves along and stops at each solar array to adjust the panels so that they are 5 degrees ahead of the sun. The process takes about 40 minutes, then starts over again. The track, which is built a few feet above the ground, can be configured as needed without grading the land and disturbing native plants and habitats.

Bokhari was born in Pakistan and came to the United States at age 17 to study at MIT, where he got his undergraduate degree and Ph.D. in physics. He taught at the University of Pennsylvania but left academia in 1999 to join the flood of people moving west to Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom. He was involved in several startups, spanning software and printed electronics, before founding QBotix in June 2010. The company has 30 full-time employees.

This year, QBotix plans to announce other installations in Arizona, Japan and elsewhere. But there are other possible applications for its robots, including the cleaning of solar panels in dusty desert areas to assure maximum efficiency.

"What's interesting about QBotix is that it's really a leap ahead in that this robot does all the work of repositioning the solar panels," said Randy Wu of Trina Solar, which has begun co-marketing QBotix to some of its customers. "It simplifies a lot of things, and there's the potential for second- and third-generation robots."

Contact Dana Hull at 408-920-2706. Follow her at Twitter.com/danahull.