Hark back to your primary school days and try and remember the first lesson you had in your life sciences class. Do you remember being told that “the sun is the source of all energy and life on earth”? It’s an important lesson, and one that is especially relevant in an age when our traditional fossil fuels are all but depleted, and the only way out is to turn to non traditional sources of power. However, solar power is not the only applicability for sunlight that we have. It is difficult to imagine in tropical and Mediterranean climate zones, but in places far north, sunshine is one of the most valuable commodities one could think of. England receives an average of 20-40% sunshine a year, while farther north, in Iceland, the number drops to 20% and below. For anyone living in these countries and their neighbors, sunshine is not just golden – it is gold itself.
A “robust, precise and reliable” heliostat
When Diva Tommei moved from sunny Italy to dreary England for her PhD 5 years ago, the realization of this truth virtually knocked the wind out of her. It occurred to her that if she had a way of carrying around the sun when it was actually out, it would revolutionize her world. Before long, she started wondering how it could revolutionize an entire industry. This was the beginning of Solenica, a Cambridge, UK based startup that produces heliostats. Their have taken technology that has essentially existed since the ancient Egyptians, and made it “robust, precise and reliable”. Improving on their Helios 1 and Helios 4 models, Solenica has now put their latest project on Kickstarter – a solar tracking robot called SunnyBot that lets you beam sunlight in places it otherwise would not have reached.
Find the sun in a matter of seconds
Using SunnyBot is as easy as pointing it in the direction of the target you want illuminated or heated, and then letting it do its work. With the help of its smart optical positioning system, SunnyBot’s mirror automatically rotates to focus light rays on the target, keeping with the sun’s own journey across the heavens. Thanks to its two linear actuators, the bot is self calibrating to the accuracy of 1 degree, which means that its orientation is continuously optimized. The state of the art electronics it comes with periodically analyses prevalent weather conditions and automatically turns it on, puts it on standby or switches it right off, depending on the amount of light available. So, for example, if the sun is out after a storm, SunnyBot will be able to find it in a matter of seconds. As a robot developed for all kinds of weather, it is also suitably resistant to harsh climatic conditions.
From disco balls to animal health
Heliostats and sun trackers are part of what is known as green tech. Developed as a response to the deteriorating environmental conditions we live in, green tech focuses on conservation – both of natural resources and the larger environment in general. SunnyBot is green and squeaky clean as it is powered by built-in solar cells. Electricity is stored in them when light is available, so that SunnyBot never requires alternate power sources of any kind. Theoretically, the bot could run for an unlimited amount of time without any sort of human activity involved – this makes it a superbly ecologically friendly device.
SunnyBot has a vast range of uses for both individuals and businesses. If you want to light up a dark corner of your home, it will redirect 7000 lumen of sun rays to that hitherto gloomy spot. Direct SunnyBot at a disco ball and see the magic play out! SunnyBot ensures that you don’t need to switch your lights on during the day, so you save a bomb on energy bills. A few days ago, on the 27th of June, a large SunnyBot with a capacity of 60,000 lumen and a diameter of 90 cm was installed at the Rome zoo. Some of the north facing cages had been vacated as a result of the animals getting sick, but now, thanks to SunnyBot, the space has been repurposed to house a flock of brilliantly plumaged parrots. This is a great example of the robot’s wide-ranging applicability.
Scorching temperatures even while it’s freezing
SunnyBot also has the capacity to transmit energy – if you point it towards a solar panel, be it a photovoltaic panel or a thermal solar panel – the bot will efficiently transfer energy to it. And if you want double the output, simply point two Sunny Bots at the panel instead of one. Industrially, this has manifold uses. Optical devices such as Fresnel lenses or concave mirrors can be used to obtain temperatures as high as 500C, or you could use several SunnyBot-PROs pointed at the same target, much in the manner of concentrated solar power plants. SunnyBot-PROs come with enhanced hardware and software which allow them to “work synchronously in an energy array”, so you can activate/deactivate all the bots at the same time. This makes energy collection easier. Using 25 SunnyBot-PROs can produce up to 2000 Watts of power on a solar thermal collector, resulting in scorching temperatures even when it is freezing. Farmers who cultivate rare indoor plants can use SunnyBot to keep their crops healthy and growing, even in the harshest winter.
Crowdfunding SunnyBots with Kickstarter
Although product development has been taking place in Italy, Tommei spends her time between Rome, London and Cambridge. All praises for Cambridge’s environment when it comes to startups, she especially gives credit to the University for being at the forefront of innovation, with clubs like CUTEC (Cambridge University Technology and Enterprise Club) and CUE (Cambridge University Entrepreneurs) thriving within its hallowed portals.
Solenica has raised £18,061 of their £200,000 goal on Kickstarter with 13 days left to go. Their decision to go on the crowdfunding platform wasn’t taken lightly, and was made only after they had successfully built several fully functional prototypes that stood up to the rigorous tests the team put them through. 5 entire generations of SunnyBots have already been built and decimated in a bid to perfect the design. According to Tommei, the market for heliostats is a newly fledgling one, which means that a major part of Solenica’s energies are currently focused on just spreading the word. “We know it’s not going to be as easy as tapping into an already existing market,” she says. “There is no incremental step that we can take – this is the first step that everything after will be compared to.”