Robotic mowers from the universities of Central Florida and South Florida will face off at a Disney solar plant Monday in a competition for the future of industrial lawn care.
Orlando Utilities Commission and Duke Energy are sponsoring several engineering teams from the universities.
The utilities’ goal is to set in motion the development of technology that will evolve some years from now into an autonomous, robotic and perhaps solar-fueled mowing machine that keeps vast and increasingly numerous solar plants well trimmed.
Tall weeds and solar power are a poor mix.
“Shade has a major effect on solar efficiency,” said Justin Kramer, OUC supervisor for emerging technologies.
On the market now are autonomous, battery-powered mowers for home use. The mowers sought by OUC and Duke would be of a different caliber.
Solar fields can be rocky, uneven and thick with gnarly weeds.
Taming that challenging landscape today requires crews, mowers and herbicides. And that work is a pain in the back, as solar plants amount to an extended obstacle course.
Duke Energy’s newest solar plants will span about 500 acres with as many as 300,000 panels. Clearance beneath each panel is about 2 feet and they rise to 6 feet. The posts that support the panels are nearly 14 feet apart.
Kramer said the competition will be repeated many times, with the expectation of a demonstration prototype within two to three years and working units in five to seven years.
“We are trying to answer the question of how big and how many,” Kramer said.
OUC and Duke are providing each competing team with several thousand dollars for materials.
UCF engineering professor Mark Steiner said four teams with five to ten members each will compete from his school. All are seniors in mechanical, electrical and computer engineering.
Their three- or four-wheeled machines won’t have fixed blades and will do their cutting with weed-whip style lines.
They also will be equipped with a variety of navigation sensors and GPS tracking.
“This is an educational experience first and foremost,” Steiner said.
USF engineering professor Willie Moreno said his school will bring three teams of seniors, all studying electrical engineering.
They have been at work on their mower designs since last year and recently presented their units for evaluation within the engineering department.
“We are calling this phase one,” Moreno said. “There is a lot more to come to look at these as commercial vehicles.”
Even so, Moreno said, the students have participated in an actual industry project. “I believe that it gives them confidence,” Moreno said.
Written by Kevin Spear for the Orlando Sentinel