Worried about solar panel theft? Shrink them

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The problem of solar panel theft has been covered by the NY times and other media over several years. Whether for financial gain or just out of plain vandalism, this is a real issue.

The issue is even more acute for precision agriculture and other IoT applications. Is likely that thieves will climb on a residential home to take down the panels or is it more likely that they will target panels in an unattended agricultural plot? For such agricultural applications, the solar panels are the source of energy that makes it possible to sample sensors and send this data for analysis to the cloud. Thus, their theft is not just an inconvenience – it halts the collection and flow of valuable data.

In agricultural and industrial applications, solar panels are used instead of batteries. Solar panels can keep rechargeable batteries topped off and these, in turn, can power a remote weather station or collect data from a soil moisture sensors. They save the time and expense of having to replace batteries once a season.

But theft aside, these large solar panels are not without issues. When used for agricultural sensors, they often need to be installed at a distance from the tree or plant and connected with a cable. These sensors often interfere with harvesting activities and need to be removed and then re-installed every season.

The solution to both the theft and removal issues? Shrink them. Sol-Chip developed tiny solar cells – about the size of a penny – and then high-efficiency charging circuitry that works with them to trickle-charge batteries. These cells are made of a special material that can harvest energy off ambient light without needing to be directly facing the sun. These cells are integrated into a “SolTag”, an iPhone-sized device that measures sensory data and communicates it to the cloud. It even has enough energy to open and close valves such as for irrigation systems.

Introducing such a small and efficient system has multiple benefits:

  • The unit does not require any maintenance but does not include large solar panels that are attractive to criminals.
  • The SolTag can conveniently be attached to a plant, such as to the bottom of a vine, and stay attached even during harvest season
  • Because the SolTag integrates both energy harvesting and communications, it eliminates the need to run and maintain cables to a separate solar cell.

It is the best of both worlds: a battery-free solution that is barely noticeable and thus much less susceptible to theft.