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Title:
DRONE SYSTEMS FOR CLEANING SOLAR PANELS AND METHODS OF USING THE SAME
Document Type and Number:
WIPO Patent Application WO/2021/002881
Kind Code:
A1
Abstract:
The present invention provides an unmanned aerial vehicle ("UAV") operations system for cleaning one or more designated surfaces such as a solar panel installed on a roof, or the surface of a window, wall, billboard, scoreboard, etc., which may be too high or too far away from a position on the ground which is easily and safely accessible by a person. For solar panels, such cleaning is not only for aesthetic purposes, but must be performed regularly in order to keep the solar panel functioning at peak performance. The system may also include a ground companion vehicle such as an ATV, golf cart, or the like, which can follow an approximation of the UAV's flight path and provide cleaning media and power to the UAV via a tether, allowing the UAV to clean a large number of surfaces before returning to refill or recharge.

Inventors:
GAVRILOV MICHAEL (US)
Application Number:
US2019/047682
Publication Date:
January 07, 2021
Filing Date:
August 22, 2019
Export Citation:
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Assignee:
GAVRILOV MICHAEL (US)
International Classes:
B64C39/02; H02S40/10
Attorney, Agent or Firm:
CHRISTENSEN, Jared, E. et al. (US)
Download PDF:
Claims:
CLAIMS

What is claimed is:

1. A system for cleaning a designated surface, the system comprising:

a. an unmanned aerial vehicle, said aerial vehicle including:

i. a sensor for detecting a position of said surface;

ii. an onboard controller having a memory and a communications device; and

iii. a distribution device for applying a cleaning media to said surface.

2. The system of Claim 1, wherein said unmanned aerial vehicle comprises a drone having a battery, a plurality of lift devices, an onboard tank for holding a cleaning media, and a pump for pumping said cleaning media through a delivery channel, said delivery channel putting said onboard tank in fluid communication with said distribution device.

3. The system of Claim 2, wherein said onboard controller is operable to determine positioning data regarding a surface cleaning path of said drone, said positioning data being based on a scan of a shape and size of said surface via said sensor, and a GPS position of said surface, said memory being operable to store said positioning data, and said onboard controller being operable to automatically navigate said drone through said surface cleaning path for subsequent cleaning(s) of said surface.

4. The system of Claim 3, wherein said onboard controller is further operable to determine a GPS position of a home platform, and an overall flight path of said drone comprises navigation from said home platform to said surface, through said surface cleaning path, and back to said home platform.

5. The system of Claim 4, wherein said home platform comprises a refilling device and a charging device.

6. The system of Claim 5, wherein said home platform further comprises a docking mechanism.

7. The system of Claim 4, wherein said home platform is integral to a transport vehicle.

8. The system of Claim 2, wherein said drone is piloted by a remote UAV pilot.

9. The system of Claim 8, wherein said sensor comprises a camera, and said communications device is operable to: a. transmit an image captured by said camera to a display of a remote-controller operated by said pilot; and

b. receive flight instructions input into said remote-controller by said pilot.

10. The system of Claim 8, wherein said flight instructions include a surface cleaning path, said surface cleaning path leading said distribution device over an area of said surface.

11. The system of Claim 1, wherein said sensor comprises at least one of a digital camera for capturing images and live video, a scanner for scanning said surface and/or reading a code thereon, and a position sensor for determining a position of said surface.

12. The system of Claim 2, wherein said onboard controller is operable to control said plurality of lift devices such that said drone remains substantially level while said cleaning media is applied to said surface.

13. The system of Claim 3, wherein said onboard controller is operable to control said plurality of lift devices and to return said drone to said position of said home platform upon the occurrence of at least one of: a. the onboard tank becoming substantially empty of the cleaning media; and b. the battery reaching a minimum threshold of power.

14. The system of Claim 1, wherein said unmanned aerial vehicle comprises a drone and said system further comprises a companion ground vehicle operable to follow a ground path which approximates the flight path of the unmanned aerial vehicle, said companion ground vehicle comprising a tank for holding said cleaning media and a pump for pumping said cleaning media to said distribution device via a tether.

15. A system for cleaning a surface of a solar panel, the system comprising: a. a drone having a plurality of propellers, a battery an onboard tank for holding a cleaning media, a pump for pumping said cleaning media, an adjustable nozzle for directing a spray of said cleaning media at said surface, an onboard controller for controlling said plurality of propellers, activating said pump, and adjusting said adjustable nozzle, a communications device for communicating with a remote-controller operated by a UAV pilot; and

b. a transport vehicle for transporting said drone to a location neat to said solar panel, said transport vehicle comprising a home platform for said drone, a charging device for charging said battery, and a filling device for filling said onboard tank with said cleaning media, wherein said drone is operable to follow a flight path, said flight path leading from said home platform to said solar panel, through a surface cleaning path wherein the adjustable nozzle is passed over said surface and directs a spray of said cleaning media at said surface, and back to said home platform.

16. A method for using an unmanned aerial vehicle for cleaning a surface of a solar panel, comprising the steps of:

a. providing an unmanned aerial vehicle having a plurality of lift devices, a battery, a distribution device for applying a cleaning media to said surface, a sensor, and an onboard controller for controlling said plurality of propellers, and said distribution device; b. navigating said unmanned aerial vehicle to said solar panel;

c. navigating said unmanned aerial vehicle through a surface cleaning path; and d. activating said distribution device to apply said cleaning media to said surface.

17. The method of Claim 16, wherein said unmanned aerial vehicle further comprises an onboard tank for holding said cleaning media, a pump for pumping said cleaning media, and a communications device for communicating with a remote controller, and wherein said sensor comprises a digital camera oriented to observe a spray area of said distribution device, and further comprising the step of transmitting a live feed of said digital camera to a display of said remote controller.

18. The method of Claim 17, wherein said distribution device comprises an adjustable nozzle and said onboard controller is operable to adjust a spray and a direction of said adjustable nozzle, and further comprising the step of providing instructions to adjust said spray and said direction of said adjustable nozzle via said remote controller.

19. The method of Claim 16, further comprising the steps of: a. providing a home platform having a refilling device and a charging device; and b. navigating said unmanned aerial vehicle to said home platform upon the occurrence of either the onboard tank becoming substantially empty of the cleaning media or the battery reaching a minimum threshold of power.

20. The method of Claim 19, wherein said home platform further comprises a docking mechanism, and further comprising the step of:

a. docking the unmanned aerial vehicle with the home platform.

Description:
DRONE SYSTEMS FOR CLEANING SOLAR PANELS AND METHODS OF USING

THE SAME

FIELD OF THE INVENTION The present invention relates generally to unmanned aerial vehicles for use in carrying out tasks, and more specifically to using piloted or pre-programmed drones for safely and efficiently cleaning solar panels.

BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION

The statements in this section merely provide background information related to the present disclosure and may not constitute prior art.

Concerns over climate change and air quality have brought the field of renewable energy into the forefront of both scientific endeavor and political discourse. Renewable energy technologies, are clean sources of energy that have a lower environmental impact than conventional fossil fuel and nuclear energy technologies. An important and increasingly commercially available type of renewable energy technology is solar technology, which typically involves solar panels used to absorb the electromagnetic energy provided by photons released by the sun. Because of the need for a solar panel to have unobstructed sunlight in order to properly function, solar panels have been installed on the roofs of countless homes and business around the world, as well as on standalone structures over parking lots, and in long and numerous rows at solar farms. These installations represent significant investments based on the expectation of years of continued energy production from the solar panels. However, in order for a solar panel to produce energy at peak efficiency, the panel’s surface must be clear of dirt and debris which can block the sun’s photons from being absorbed by the panel for conversion into electricity. This requires regular cleaning of the surface of the panel. Conventional methods for cleaning the surfaces of solar panels, whether the panels are residential or commercial, have involved a person climbing up onto the roof of the home or commercial structure with some combination of a hose, bucket, towels, brushes, and squeegees, and washing the panels by hand. The process may involve significant time in preparation for cleaning the panels, such as obtaining and setting up a tall ladder, and potentially having to adjust the ladder multiple times in order to access all of the panels. Also, it may require connecting to a remote water source, requiring the use of a long, heavy hose. Time and effort for stowing such equipment after the panels have been cleaned may be significant as well. This process must then be repeated on a regular basis for years on end. This method is inefficient and costly in terms of labor, especially for a cleaning company which has multiple cleaning jobs each day. The process also represents a significant safety risk for the person cleaning the panels, presenting multiple opportunities for the cleaner to make a misstep and fall off of the roof or structure, or fall from the ladder used to access the panels. Again, for a commercial cleaner working on multiple structures every day, this risk is constant.

Therefore, what is needed is an improved system and method for cleaning solar panels which both improves efficiency and decreases risk of injury.

SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION

The present invention provides an unmanned aerial vehicle operations system for cleaning one or more designated surfaces. The designated surface may be a solar panel installed on a roof, above a parking structure, or in long rows in a solar farm. The designated surface may alternatively be a surface of a window, a wall, a roof, an eve, a gutter, a billboard, a scoreboard, a screen, a fence, or another similar surface. The designated surface may be too high or too far away from a position on the ground which is easily and safely accessible by a person. The unmanned aerial vehicle (“UAV”) may be a rotor craft such as a multicopter (e.g., a quadcopter), or other appropriate vehicles (i.e., a drone), operable to easily fly up or over to the position of the designated surface and to apply a cleaning media in order to remove dirt and debris from the surface. In the case of a solar panel, such cleaning is not only for aesthetic purposes, but must be performed regularly in order to keep the solar panel functioning at peak performance. The cleaning media may be pumped at high pressure from a tank and applied to the surface via a distribution device which may be operable to direct a spray of the cleaning media at the surface. The tank may be onboard the UAV such that the UAV may be free to fly in the most direct and efficient flight path and cleaning path. The tank may alternatively be located on a ground companion vehicle such as an ATV, golf cart, or the like, which can follow an approximation of the UAV’s flight path on the ground and provide a greater volume of cleaning media than the UAV would otherwise be able to carry, allowing the UAV to clean a greater number of surfaces before returning to refill or refuel. The system may thus be operable to safely and efficiently reach and clean one or more designated surfaces in locations which are dangerous, difficult, and time consuming for a human to clean.

In other embodiments of the system, the tank may be located at a home platform or other ground station having a substantially flat surface of sufficient size for the UAV to safely land upon and be secured to (e.g., via clips, cords, ropes, or other similar securing device, during transportation to the site of the designated surface). In embodiments wherein the tank is located on a ground companion vehicle or at a home platform, the cleaning media, as well as electrical power or fuel suitable to power the UAV (e.g., gasoline, natural gas, air pressure, steam, or other similar power source), may be fed to the drone via a tether. The tether may comprise at least one transfer line such as a hose or other watertight line to transfer the cleaning media to the UAV. The tether may further include a power line for powering the UAV, such as a hose for transferring fuel, air, or steam, or an electrical lead for providing electrical power. In other embodiments, the UAV may have an onboard tank and may make return trips to the companion vehicle, home platform, or other ground station in order to replenish the cleaning media in the tank and to refuel or recharge before taking off again to clean further surfaces.

The system may include the following major components: a UAV having a plurality of lift devices, a distribution device for directing cleaning media at a designated surface, at least one sensor for determining the position of the UAV and adjacent objects, and viewing the area adjacent to the distribution device, and an onboard controller having a central processor, a memory, and a communications device; a tank for holding a volume of the cleaning media and a pump for pumping the cleaning media to the distribution device, the tank being located either onboard the UAV, or connected to the UAV via a tether and located on the ground. The system may also optionally include a remote controller operated by a UAV pilot (e.g., a UAV pilot) for remotely controlling the UAV and the distribution device, a transport vehicle for transporting the UAV and a home platform to a location adjacent to the designated surface to be cleaned; and/or a ground companion vehicle tethered to the UAV for providing a greatly increased volume of cleaning media when there is a large area or a large number of surfaces to be cleaned.

The UAV may have an onboard computing device, hereinafter referred to as a controller or onboard controller, and may be capable of vertically taking off and landing, hovering and precisely maneuvering near walls, roofs, pillars, and other structures. In order to clean a designated surface, the aerial vehicle includes a cleaning media distribution device such as a nozzle or shower head, and the distribution device may be adjustable to regulate the flow and direction of a spray of the cleaning media onto the surface. In some embodiments, the cleaning media may comprise at least one of water, steam, air, an aqueous solution including a soap, an aqueous solution including a biodegradable cleaner, and a combination thereof. The biodegradable cleaner may be organically disposable and safe for surrounding flora and fauna.

The flow of cleaning media may be regulated by an adjustable valve and the direction of the spray of cleaning media may be regulated via an adjustable swivel mount, the valve and swivel mount being adjusted via a solenoid or the like which is controlled by the controller. The distribution device may be detachable and replaceable, and the nozzle or shower head may thus be replaced with a brush, pad, cloth, squeegee, or the like, or some combination of one or more such devices. The system may be operable to switch from a spraying technique with or without a swiveling mount, to a brushing or wiping technique which also utilizes a flow of the cleaning media fed in from the tank to coat the brush, pad, cloth, squeegee, or the like. The distribution device may be connected to the cleaning media source (e.g. an onboard tank) via a delivery channel, and the system may include a pump operable to pressurize the cleaning media in the tank or pump the cleaning media directly into the delivery channel and out to the distribution device. The functions of the distribution device may be controlled by the controller and determined by a preprogrammed set of instructions stored in a memory of the controller, or the distribution device may be determined by a UAV pilot a inputting instructions into a remote controller, the remote controller transmitting the instructions to a communications device (e.g., a transceiver) on the UAV. The speed and activation of the pump may be controlled by the onboard controller or by the UAV pilot via the remote controller, or the pump may be autonomous and operate based on a pressure reading in the tank as determined by a pressure sensor in electronic communication with the onboard controller.

The UAV may further be operable to proceed through a cleaning session wherein the UAV applies a cleaning media to the designated surface, and a rinsing session wherein the UAV applies a rinsing media to the designated surface, without landing. The UAV may comprise a first onboard tank for holding the cleaning media (e.g., an aqueous soap), and a second onboard tank for holding a rinsing media (e.g., water or spot-free rinse such as an aqueous solution containing deionized water and a non-ionic surfactant). The UAV may further comprise a valve (e.g., a Y valve) in communication with a pump of the first tank, a pump of the second tank, and the distribution device, such that the valve is operable to switch the media being applied through the distribution device from the cleaning media to the rinsing media, and back to the cleaning media. In embodiments which include a tether rather than an onboard tank, the tether may comprise a first line for delivering cleaning media to the UAV and a second line for delivering rinsing media to the UAV, the Y valve being able to switch from the first line to the second line, and back again.

The UAV may also include a sensor suite operable to detect obstacles in the flight path of the UAV, as well as the designated surface(s) to be cleaned. The sensor suite may include one or more sensors, the sensors including at least one of a digital camera for capturing images and live video, a scanner for scanning said surface or reading a code thereon, a motion sensor for determining a position a position of said surface relative to the UAV, and a GPS or similar sensor operable to determine the exact location of the UAV. The camera may be any camera operable to obtain a digital image of an area adjacent to the UAV. The scanner may be operable to detect and recognize a surface marker comprising a code printed on or adjacent to the designated surface (e.g., a bar code, a QR code, or the like), the code either providing data regarding the shape, location, and/or orientation of the designated surface, or being associated with such data already stored in the memory of the onboard controller. The scanner and code may thus allow the UAV to determine the exact location, size and shape of the surface to be cleaned. The position sensor may be any sensor operable to detect a position and shape of objects adjacent to the UAV. The position sensor may thus allow the UAV to determine, in conjunction with the GPS sensor, the exact location and shape of the surface to be cleaned.

The UAV may be operable to gather and record data regarding reduced functionality of the designated surface via the one or more sensors. The reduced functionality may comprise at least one of a cracked or otherwise compromised surface, a misaligned surface, a damaged wire or electrical component associated with the designated surface, condensation underneath the designated surface, discoloration of the designated surface, and activation of an indicator associated with the designated surface. In some embodiments, activation of an indicator associated with the designated surface may comprise illumination or de-illumination of an indicator light (e.g., an LED on the side or at the edge of a solar panel), data displayed on a screen adjacent to the surface (e.g., the electrical output of a solar panel displayed on an LCD or other type of screen) or other similar types of indicators of proper function of a solar panel or other similar type of surface. The data regarding reduced functionality of the designated surface may be recorded in the memory and/or transmitted via the communications device to at least one of a remote controller and another database for analysis (e.g., transmitted to a remote server or computer located in the transport vehicle, the companion vehicle, or a remote location such as a company headquarters). The data regarding reduced functionality of the designated surface may comprise at least one of a digital image recorded by a digital camera, topographical data recorded by a position sensor, data regarding a value displayed by an indicator, or other similar data. In some embodiments, the controller may be operable to utilize data obtained via the one or more sensors regarding the location and shape of the designated surface, in connection with data regarding the dimensions of a spray of cleaning media provided by the distribution device (or a size of the cleaning surface of a non-spraying distribution device) in order to determine positioning data regarding a surface cleaning path for that particular designated surface, and record such positioning data in the memory for subsequent cleaning of that designated surface. In other embodiments, the controller may be operable to record in the memory and recall GPS coordinates of a cleaning path flown by the UAV under instruction from a UAV pilot via the remote controller. In either such embodiments, on subsequent visits the UAV may already have a predetermined and preprogrammed flight path, with the controller being operable to automatically navigate the UAV through the surface cleaning path for subsequent cleaning(s) of the surface without the need for input from a UAV pilot. The memory may have the capacity to store such pre-programmed flight paths, and the controller may be operable to automatically navigate the UAV through such pre-programmed flight paths, for a plurality of different surfaces at a single location, and for a plurality of surfaces at a plurality of different locations.

In such embodiments, the companion ground vehicle may comprise a companion controller in communication with the onboard controller, or the onboard controller may be located on the ground companion vehicle while still in wired (via the tether) or wireless (via the communications device) electronic communication with the sensor suite of the UAV. The companion controller or onboard controller located on the companion ground vehicle may include a display for providing a driver of the companion ground vehicle with a visual representation of the pre-programmed flight path and the GPS location of the companion ground vehicle and the UAV. The driver may thus drive the companion ground vehicle in an approximation of the flight path of the UAV, preventing the UAV from running out of room to maneuver due to a fully extended tether. In yet other embodiments, the companion ground vehicle may be a self-driving vehicle with its own sensor suite, and may be operable to automatically follow an approximation of the pre-programmed flight path of the UAV, or follow along as the UAV is flown by a UAV pilot, who may be sitting in the companion ground vehicle.

In embodiments wherein the UAV is not tethered, the controller may be further operable to determine a GPS position of a home platform. The home platform may provide a home location for the UAV, data transfer connections, power connections, a source for refilling the cleaning media in the tank of the UAV, and a location for the UAV to be secured (e.g., strapped down) during transportation in a transport vehicle. The home platform may be associated with a transport vehicle (e.g., mounted to the vehicle on rails which allow the platform to be pulled out of an open door or hatch of the transport vehicle), or located on the ground near the designated surface (e.g., on the ground next to the building, adjacent to the closest available water or electrical outlet, or the end of a hose or extension cord connected thereto). In some embodiments, the home platform may extend from at least one of an open door or doors (e.g., a side door or doors, a rear door or doors, or a front door), an open hatch (e.g., a rear hatch, side hatch, or roof hatch) or other similar opening of the transport vehicle. In some embodiments, a reserve tank for holding cleaning media and having a refilling device, and a power source for refueling the UAV or charging a battery of the UAV and having a charging device, may be installed anywhere in or on the transport vehicle (e.g., in a cargo bay, a cargo bed, in a wall, on a ceiling, or on a roof of the transport vehicle).

The home platform may include a docking mechanism operable to receive the UAV, hold the UAV in place on the upper surface of the platform, and line the up the refilling device and the charging device of the home platform for easy and/or automatic connection with a refilling receiver and a charging receiver of the UAV (e.g., docking of the UAV at the home platform automatically connects the refilling device with the refilling receiver and connects the charging device with the charging receiver). The refilling device and the refilling receiver may comprise any connectors operable to provide a watertight connection between the reserve tank of the home platform and the tank of the UAV. In some embodiments, the refilling device may comprise, e.g., a quick-connect barbed male hose connector having a shape complementary to a shape of the refilling receiver, which may comprise, e.g., and a quick-connect female hose connector receiver. In other embodiments, the refilling device may comprise the female end and the refilling receiver may comprise the male end. The charging device and the charging receiver may comprise any connectors operable to provide an electrical connection between a power source of the home platform and a battery and/or controller of the UAV. In some embodiments, the charging device may comprise a multi-prong male electrical connector (e.g., a three-prong or two-prong plug) and the charging receiver may comprise a multi-hole female connector (e.g., a three-prong or two-prong receiver similar to a wall outlet). In other embodiments, the charging device may comprise the female connector and the charging receiver may comprise the male end.

The docking mechanism may comprise one or more clamping devices arranged on the upper surface of the home platform, a shape and placement of the one or more clamping members corresponding with a shape and placement of one or more lower support members of the UAV (e.g., landing rails, feet, or the like). The home platform may comprise one or more docking sensors (e.g., a pressure switch, a position sensor, a motion sensor, another similar sensor, and a combination thereof) operable to detect when the lower support members of the UAV are located adjacent to the one or more clamping members and thus the UAV is in position for docking, and send a docking signal to a home platform controller. The docking mechanism may then be operable to move (e.g., via an electric motor, a solenoid, a pneumatic mechanism, or the like) from an open position (e.g., wherein the one or more clamping members are not engaged with the one or more lower support members) to a docked position (e.g., wherein the one or more clamping members is in a position which holds the one or more lower support members in place on the upper surface of the home platform). The one or more sensors, the clamping mechanism, the charging device, and a pump of the reserve tank may each be in electronic communication with the home platform controller, the home platform controller being operable to receive the docking signal from the one or more docking sensors and subsequently: 1) cause the docking mechanism to move from the open position to the docked position, securing the UAV in place on the home platform; 2) activate the pump of the reserve tank to move cleaning media from the reserve tank to the tank onboard the UAV and shut the pump off when the onboard tank is substantially full or the reserve tank is substantially empty; and 3) causing power source to charge the battery of the UAV the until the battery is substantially charged or the power source is substantially out of power. The controller may further be operable to automatically cause the docking mechanism to move back to the open position upon the at least one of the onboard tank becoming substantially full with cleaning media and the battery obtaining a full charge.

The home platform may further comprise a platform marker on the upper surface, the platform marker comprising a code readable by the one or more sensors of the UAV. The platform marker may comprise a code (e.g., a QR code, a bar code, an alpha-numeric code, and the like, or a combination thereof) which may be scanned by the one or more sensors and deciphered by the onboard controller, the code providing information regarding a position and orientation of the home platform such that the UAV may determine exactly where to land in order to dock with the home platform. In some embodiments, the platform marker may comprise a QR code having identification information (identifying the home platform to the controller) and orientation information (e.g., the platform marker may always be located in a particular comer of the upper surface and may always be oriented such that a mark of the QR code is in a corner of the platform marker furthest from a center of the upper platform). The controller may thus be able to determine exactly how to orient the UAV (e.g., how many degrees to rotate left or right) and how far to travel (e.g., exactly 12 inches away from the comer of the platform marker) in order to sufficiently align the lower support members with the docking mechanism such that the UAV may automatically dock with the home platform.

Thus, when the UAV requires refilling of the onboard tank or charging of the battery, the UAV may be operable to autonomously locate, orient with, and alight on the home platform, and the home platform may then be operable to autonomously secure the UAV to the upper surface via the docking mechanism, connecting the refilling device and the charging device with the refilling receiver and charging receiver, respectively, refill the onboard tank, charge the battery, and then open the docking mechanism, allowing the UAV to resume cleaning a designated surface. The home platform may include leveling means, the leveling means allowing a user to adjust the position of the home platform such that the upper surface thereof is level (e.g., a plane of the upper surface is substantially perpendicular to vertical). In some embodiments the leveling means may comprise a plurality of extendable legs, each of the plurality of extendable legs comprising means for extending a length of that leg. In some embodiments, each of the extendable legs may comprise a first and second member slidably engaged with each other and lockable with respect to each other (e.g., a first cylindrical member slidably nested within a second cylindrical member, the first cylindrical member comprising a resilient depressible tab and the second cylindrical member comprising a series of slots along a length thereof in which the depressible tab may be inserted). Each extendable leg of the plurality of extendable legs may thus be independently adjusted in length until the home platform is level. In some embodiments, the home platform may comprise at least one leveling bubble such as those used in a level tool for construction projects. In some embodiments, the plurality of extendable legs may each comprise a automated extending device (e.g., a pneumatic cylinder) controllable by the platform controller, the platform controller being operable to automatically level the home platform via the plurality of extendable legs. In embodiments wherein the home platform is integral with a transport vehicle the plurality of extendable legs may each be connected to a support structure of the vehicle (e.g., connected to a scaffolding mounted to one or more rails for extending the home platform out of the vehicle). In embodiments wherein the home platform is not integral with a transport vehicle, the plurality of extendable legs may each have a foot (e.g., a pad) at a lower end thereof for engaging the ground.

The onboard controller may comprise a navigational software program, the software program being operable to receive positional data from the senor(s) of the UAV (e.g., locational data from a GPS device, and data regarding adjacent obstacles from a digital camera and/or motion sensor) and calculate a flight path from a first position (e.g., a position of the home platform) to a second position (e.g., a position of a designated surface). The navigational software program may further be operable to receive positional data regarding a designated surface from at least one of the sensor(s), the memory, and a code printed on a marker on the designated surface, and from such data calculate a surface cleaning path which allows a spray of cleaning media from the distribution device, taking into account the shape and distance of the spray, to efficiently cover the entire designated surface with the spray. The controller may thus be operable to autonomously determine positioning data for an overall flight path of the UAV and navigate the UAV from the home platform to the designated surface, through the surface cleaning path, and back to the home platform (e.g., for refilling/refueling, or for being secured for transport or storage).

In some embodiments, the system may not include the transport vehicle and home platform (e.g., for small residential applications). The home platform may be operable to connect to a water source (e.g., a hose or spigot) for the purpose of filling the reserve tank on the home platform or directly filling the tank onboard the UAV, and may be operable to connect to an electrical power source (e.g., a wall outlet) for the purpose of providing power to the charging device or charging a battery of the home platform.

In some embodiments, at least one of a home platform and a ground companion vehicle may comprise a reserve tank for holding cleaning media and a power source for fueling the UAV or charging the battery of the UAV. In some embodiments, the UAV may be in communication with the reserve tank or the power source, or both, via a tether. In other embodiments, the UAV may be untethered and may need to return the home platform in order to refill its own cleaning media tank and/or refuel or recharge its battery. The home platform may comprise a refilling device for putting the tank of the home platform in fluid communication with the tank of the UAV. In some embodiments, the refilling device may be a hose or other line having a connector operable to connect to a receiver on the UAV, the receiver being in fluid communication with the tank onboard the UAV. The platform may further comprise a charging device for providing electricity to and charging or recharging a battery of the UAV. The charging device may comprise an electrical lead having an electrical connector operable to connect to an electrical receiver on the UAV, the electrical receiver being in electronic communication with at least one of the controller and the battery. The charging device may draw power from a battery of or electrical system of the transport vehicle, a battery or electrical system of the companion ground vehicle, a battery or electrical system of the home platform, or from an electrical outlet of a building or other structure.

The UAV may comprise a plurality of lift devices (e.g., propellers, turbines, jet propulsion nozzles, magnetic levitators, and the like). In some embodiments, the plurality of lift devices may comprise a plurality of propellers. The system may further include a barrier around the path of the propellers for the purpose of preventing contact of the blades with obstacles such as trees, poles, telephone or power lines, gutters, antennas, satellite dishes, and the like to prevent damage or disrupting of the flight path, and to prevent injury to the UAV pilot and/or bystanders.

The onboard controller may receive inputs from the sensor suite and cause the UAV to maneuver a desirable distance from such obstacles and from the surface to be cleaned. Such inputs may lead the onboard controller to override any flight path data provided by the UAV pilot via the remote controller. When the aerial vehicle is in a desired location, the distribution device may be activated, either automatically if the flight path is pre-programmed, or by instruction from the UAV pilot via the remote controller, the distribution device applying cleaning media to the designated surface (e.g., the upper surface of a solar panel or portions thereof) in the form of a spray or a soaked brush, pad, or towel, depending on the type of distribution device used.

The system may comprise a remote controller operated by a UAV pilot for controlling the flight of the UAV and the activation and adjustment of the distribution device, the remote controller comprising a transceiver for transmitting a signal to the communications device regarding instructions for the UAV, and receiving a signal from the communications device regarding a position, view, and/or condition of the UAV. The remote controller may comprise a plurality of input controls (e.g., one or more joysticks, levers, buttons, and the like) allowing the UAV pilot to input instructions to be transmitted to the UAV, such as flight directions, activation of the distribution device, and a direction and volume of a spray of the cleaning media from the distribution device. The remote controller may also comprise a display (e.g., a graphical display or screen which may be a touchscreen) for displaying information received from the UAV (e.g., GPS position, status of the battery and the level of cleaning media in the tank, video and other data captured by the sensor(s), and the current position and valve status of the distribution device). In some embodiments, the wireless communications device onboard the UAV and the transceiver of the remote controller may each comprises at least one of a Bluetooth device, a WiFi device, a cellular device, an RF device, a microwave device, and another similar device.

A method of using the UAV operations system for cleaning one or more designated surfaces may include the steps of: providing a UAV having a plurality of lift devices, a tank for holding a cleaning media, a pump, a distribution device, a sensor, a communications device for communicating with a remote controller, and an onboard controller for controlling the plurality of lift devices; navigating the UAV to the designated surface; navigating the UAV through a surface cleaning path; and activating the distribution device to apply the cleaning media to the designated surface. In some embodiments, the sensor comprises a digital camera oriented to observe a spray area of the distribution device, and the method may further comprise the step of transmitting a live feed of the digital camera to a display of the remote controller. In some embodiments, the distribution device comprises an adjustable nozzle and the controller is operable to adjust a shape and speed of the spray of cleaning media, and a direction of the spray of cleaning media. In some embodiments, the shape and speed of the spray provided by the nozzle may be adjusted via at least one of an electric motor and a solenoid operable to twist the nozzle with respect to a support member supporting the nozzle, from a first position to a second position. The first position may be operable to provide a wide spray having a relatively slow speed, and the second position may be operable to provide a spray having a more acute shape and a relatively higher speed as compared to the wide spray. In some embodiments, the direction of the nozzle may be adjusted via at least one of and electric motor and a solenoid operable to turn a rotatable junction of a supporting member supporting the nozzle. The method may further comprise the step of adjusting the flow rate and the direction of the adjustable nozzle via the remote controller. In some embodiments, the UAV may be tethered to and in fluid communication with a reserve tank of a companion ground vehicle, and the method may include the steps of pumping cleaning media from the reserve tank to the UAV and driving the companion ground vehicle in a path approximating the path of the UAV.

In other embodiments, the system may further comprise a home platform having a refilling device and a charging device, and the method may further comprise the steps of navigating the UAV to the home platform and refilling the tank of the UAV. In some embodiments, the method may further comprise the step of navigating the UAV to the home platform and charging a battery of the UAV. In some embodiments, the method may comprise the step of the UAV returning to the home platform upon the occurrence of at least one of: the tank becoming substantially empty of cleaning media (e.g., the tank is at a capacity ranging from about 0% to about 10% of cleaning media, and any capacity or range of capacities therebetween); and the battery of the UAV reaching a minimum threshold of power (e.g., the battery reaches the level of power required for the UAV to navigate back to the home platform, or the battery reaches a predetermined level of power in a range from about 1% to about 10%, and any level of power or range of levels of power therebetween). In some embodiments, the method may further comprise the step of navigating the UAV back from the home platform to the designated surface or to a second designated surface. In some embodiments, the method may further comprise the step of navigating the UAV from the designated surface to a second designated surface and through a second surface cleaning path. In some embodiments, the method may further comprise the step of providing a transport vehicle comprising a home platform operable to extend from an opening (e.g., a door or hatch) in the transport vehicle, a refilling device operable to refill the cleaning media tank onboard the UAV, and a charging device operable to charge a battery of the UAV.

The present invention provides improved system for cleaning difficult to reach surfaces such as solar panels in a safe, efficient, and ecofriendly manner (less water is used and the cleaning media may contain all biodegradable substances) by utilizing unmanned aerial vehicles to fly up or over to the surface to be cleaned and spray or otherwise apply the cleaning media to the surface without the need for a person to repeatedly climb up a ladder or onto a roof. These and other features and objects of the invention will be apparent from the description provided herein.

It is an object of the present invention to provide a UAV operations system which provides a safer alternative for cleaning difficult to reach surfaces, reducing the chance of injury from falling from a ladder, roof, or other structure.

It is a further object of the present invention to provide a UAV operations system which improves efficiency and productivity of cleaning difficult to reach surfaces, reducing the human labor and time required, and providing a memory of the flight path required to clean a designated surface such that subsequent cleanings may be pre-programmed and not require active UAV piloting.

It is a further object of the present invention to provide a UAV operations system which improves profitability for businesses providing surface cleaning services, requiring only a single worker UAV operator or pilot for virtually any size job who will be able to complete more jobs each day with a substantially reduced chance of injury. It is a further object of the present invention to provide a UAV operations system which is eco-friendly, utilizing biodegradable and organically disposable cleaning media, and utilizing distribution devices which use less water than a traditional hose and bucket cleaning system.

It is a further object of the present invention to provide a UAV operations system which is environmentally friendly due to increased use of renewable energy, as the system may be implemented on a regular basis with less worry about injury or effort of cleaning solar panels, increasing the frequency of cleaning and thus the productivity of such solar panels.

The above-described objects, advantages and features of the invention, together with the organization and manner of operation thereof, will become apparent from the following detailed description when taken in conjunction with the accompanying drawings, wherein like elements have like numerals throughout the several drawings described herein. Further benefits and other advantages of the present invention will become readily apparent from the detailed description of the preferred embodiments.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS FIG. 1 shows a side view of an unmanned aerial vehicle operations system for cleaning one or more designated surfaces, according to an embodiment of the present invention.

FIG. 2 shows a perspective view of an unmanned aerial vehicle for cleaning one or more designated surfaces, according to an embodiment of the present invention.

FIG. 3 shows a perspective view of an unmanned aerial vehicle cleaning one or more designated surfaces following a cleaning path for a designated surface, according to an embodiment of the present invention.

FIGS. 4 A and 4B show a side view of an unmanned aerial vehicle operations system cleaning one or more designated surfaces including a home platform, according to an embodiment of the present invention. FIG. 5 shows a side view of an unmanned aerial vehicle for cleaning one or more designated surfaces, according to an embodiment of the present invention.

FIG. 6 shows a perspective view of an unmanned aerial vehicle operations system for cleaning one or more designated surfaces including a ground companion vehicle, according to an embodiment of the present invention. FIGS. 7A and 7B show perspective views of an unmanned aerial vehicle operations system cleaning one or more designated surfaces including a transport vehicle, according to an embodiment of the present invention. DETAILED DESCRIPTION

Reference will now be made in detail to certain embodiments of the invention, examples of which are illustrated in the accompanying drawings. While the invention will be described in reference to these embodiments, it will be understood that they are not intended to limit the invention. To the contrary, the invention is intended to cover alternatives, modifications, and equivalents that are included within the spirit and scope of the invention. In the following disclosure, specific details are given to provide a thorough understanding of the invention. However, it will be apparent to one skilled in the art that the present invention may be practiced without all of the specific details provided. As seen in FIG. 1, the present invention concerns an unmanned aerial vehicle operations system 100 for cleaning one or more designated surfaces 102, 103. At least one of the designated surfaces 102, 103 may be a solar panel installed on a roof of a home. The designated surface may alternatively be a surface of a window, a wall, a roof, an eve, a gutter, a billboard, a scoreboard, a screen, a fence, or another similar surface. As detailed in FIG. 2, the unmanned aerial vehicle (“UAV”) 110 may be a rotor craft such as a multicopter having an onboard controller 111 and plurality of lift devices (e.g., propellers) 112. The onboard controller 111 may be in electronic communication with a wireless communications device for communicating with a remote controller 120. The onboard controller 111 may also be in electronic communication with a GPS device for determining a position of the UAV. The onboard controller 111 may be operable to control the propellers 112, and thus control the flight path of the UAV, which may be operable to easily fly up or over to the position of the designated surface 102, 103 and to apply a spray of cleaning media 113 in order to remove dirt and debris from the surface 102, 103. The cleaning media may be pumped via a pump 117 at high pressure from a tank 114 through a delivery channel 115 (e.g., a watertight line or hose) to at least one distribution device. The distribution device 116 may comprise a nozzle operable to direct a spray of the cleaning media at the designated surface 102/103. The tank 114 may be onboard the UAV 110 such that the UAV 110 may be free to fly in the most direct and efficient flight path and cleaning path 104. The system may thus be operable to safely and efficiently reach and clean one or more designated surfaces 102, 103 in locations which are dangerous, difficult, and time consuming for a human to clean via a ladder or climbing up to the designated surface 102/103.

As seen in FIG. 2, the distribution device 116 may comprise a plurality of adjustable nozzles, and the onboard controller 111 may be operable to adjust a shape, speed, and direction of the spray of cleaning media 113, provided by the plurality of adjustable nozzles 116. The shape and speed of the spray 113 of cleaning media provided by a nozzle of the plurality of adjustable nozzles 116 may be adjusted via a first adjustment device 126 (e.g., an electric motor or a solenoid) operable to twist the nozzle from a first position to a second position with respect to a support member 116a supporting the nozzle. The first position may be operable to provide a wide spray having a relatively slow speed (see 113a), and the second position may be operable to provide a spray having a more acute shape and a relatively higher speed (see 113b). The direction of the spray 113 may be adjusted via a second adjustment device 127 (e.g., an electric motor or a solenoid) operable to rotate the supporting member 116a from a first angle (see 113a) to a second angle (see 113b) about a junction to which the supporting member 116a is attached.

The UAV 110 may also include a sensor suite operable to detect obstacles in the flight path of the UAV 110, as well as the designated surface(s) 102/103 to be cleaned. The sensor suite may include one or more sensors 119 such as a digital camera for capturing images and live video. As seen in FIG. 3, the sensor 119 may be operable to detect and image a surface marker 105 comprising a code (e.g., a bar code, a QR code, or the like) printed on or adjacent to a designated surface 102, the code either providing data regarding the shape, location, and/or orientation of the designated surface 102, or being associated with such data already stored in the memory of the onboard controller 111. The sensor 119 and surface marker 105 may thus allow the UAV 110 to determine the exact location, size and shape of the surface 102 to be cleaned, and thus either calculate the most efficient cleaning path 104 for cleaning the surface 102, or progress through a predetermined cleaning path 104 previously recorded in the memory of the onboard controller. The system 100 may further comprise a home platform 130 having a substantially flat upper surface 131 of sufficient size for the UAV to safely land upon and be secured to. The home platform 130 may further comprise a reserve tank 132 for holding cleaning media, the reserve tank 132 having a refilling device 132a operable to connect to a fluid receiver of the UAV 110, and a power source 134 for charging a battery of the UAV 110, the power source having a charging device 134a operable to connect to an electrical receiver of the UAV 110. After cleaning a first designated surface 102 the UAV 110 may be operable to make a return trip to the home platform 130 in order to replenish the cleaning media in the tank 114 and/or to recharge before taking off again to clean a second designated surface 103.

The home platform may include a docking mechanism 135 operable to receive and hold the UAV 110 in place on the upper surface 131, and to line the up the refilling device 132a and the charging device 134a for easy and automatic connection with a refilling receiver 114a and a charging receiver 118a of the UAV battery 118. The refilling device 132a may comprise a quick-connect barbed male hose connector having a shape complementary to a shape of the refilling receiver 114a, which may comprise a quick-connect female hose connector. The charging device 134a may comprise a multi-prong male electrical connector and the charging receiver 118a may comprise a multi-hole female electrical connector.

The docking mechanism 135 may comprise one or more clamping devices arranged on the upper surface 131 the clamping members being operable to fit over and secure lower support members 135a (e.g., landing rails) of the UAV 110. The home platform 130 may comprise one or more docking sensors 136 (e.g., a pressure switches) operable to detect when the lower support members 135a of the UAV are located adjacent to the one or more clamping members 135 and send a docking signal to a home platform controller 137. The clamps of the docking mechanism 135 may then be operable to move from an open position (see FIG. 4A) to a docked position (see FIG. 4B) wherein the clamps hold the lower support members 135a in place on the upper surface 131 and cause the refilling device 132a and charging device 134a to fully engage with the refilling receiver 114a and charging receiver 118a, respectively. The docking sensors 136, the clamping mechanism 135, the charging device 132a, and the pump 132b of the reserve tank 132 may each be in electronic communication with and/or controlled by the home platform controller 137, the home platform controller 137 being operable to receive the docking signal from the docking sensors 136 and subsequently: 1) cause the docking mechanism 135 to move from the open position to the docked position; 2) activate the pump 132b to pump cleaning media from the reserve tank 132 to the tank 114 onboard the UAV 110 and shut the pump 132b off when the onboard tank 114 is substantially full or the reserve tank 132 is substantially empty; and 3) cause the power source 134 to charge the battery 118 of the UAV 110 the until the battery 118 is substantially charged or the power source 134 is substantially out of power. The home platform controller 137 may further be operable to automatically cause the docking mechanism 135 to move back to the open position at the occurrence of at least one (or both) of the onboard tank 114 becoming substantially full with cleaning media and the battery 118 obtaining a full charge.

The home platform 130 may further comprise a platform marker 139 on the upper surface 131, the platform marker 139 comprising a code readable by the one or more sensors 119 of the UAV 110, and deciphered by the onboard controller, the code providing information regarding a position and orientation of the upper surface 131 of the home platform 130 such that the UAV 110 may determine exactly where to lower itself in order to dock. The onboard controller may thus be able to determine exactly how to orient the UAV 110 (e.g., how many degrees to rotate left or right) and how far to travel (e.g., exactly 12 inches away from the comer of the platform marker) in order to sufficiently align the lower support members 135a with the docking mechanism 135 such that the UAV 110 may automatically dock with the home platform 130.

The home platform 130 may further comprise leveling means allowing a user to adjust the position of the home platform 130 such that the upper surface 131 is level (e.g., a plane of the upper surface 131 is substantially perpendicular to vertical). The leveling means may comprise a plurality of extendable legs 138, each having a first and second member slidably engaged with each other and lockable with respect to each other. For each of the plurality of extendable legs 138, the first cylindrical member may be slidably nested within the second cylindrical member, the first cylindrical member comprising a resilient depressible tab and the second cylindrical member comprising a series of slots along a length thereof in which the depressible tab may be inserted). Each extendable leg of the plurality of extendable legs 138 may thus be independently adjusted in length to conform to uneven ground 199 until the home platform 130 is level.

The system 100 may further comprise a remote controller 120 operated by a UAV pilot 125 for remotely controlling the UAV 110 and the distribution device 116 and a transport vehicle 140 for transporting the UAV 110 and the home platform 130 to a location adjacent to the designated surfaces 102, 103.

In another embodiment, as seen in FIG. 5, the cleaning media may be pumped up to the UAV 210 via a tether 260, through the delivery channel 215, and out to the distribution device 216, which may be a showerhead, while the UAV 210 runs the showerhead 216 over the designated surface 102/103. The UAV 210 may comprise four propellers 212, each propeller 212 being protected from contacting adjacent objects (e.g., branches, walls, poles, gutters, and people) via a barrier 212a, preventing both injuries, damage, and loss of lift for the UAV 210. The UAV may further comprise a plurality of sensors 219 (e.g., digital cameras and/or motion sensors) for determining the position of the UAV 210 and the adjacent objects, and viewing the area adjacent to the distribution device 216 to scan for and recognize the position of the designated surface 102/103, and to ensure that the designated surface 102/103 is being sufficiently cleaned.

FIG. 6 shows a perspective view of an embodiment of the system 300 comprising a UAV 310 having a plurality of propellers 312 protected by a barrier 312a, and a distribution device 316 comprising a nozzle, the nozzle 316 operable to direct a spray of cleaning media at a surface 302 of a solar panel installed in a row at a solar farm. The cleaning media is pumped up to the UAV 310 via a tether 360 which is in fluid communication with a tank 352 of a ground companion vehicle 350. The tether 360 may further comprise an electrical lead operable to provide electrical power to the UAV 310 or a battery thereof. The ground companion vehicle 350 may be operable to follow a path on the ground which approximates a flight path of the UAV 310, providing both cleaning media and power to the UAV 310 and enabling the UAV 310 to clean a plurality of designated surfaces of the row of solar panels, from a surface 302 of a first solar panel to a surface 303 of a last solar panel, without the need to make a return trip to refill or recharge.

As seen in FIG. 7A, in another embodiment of the present invention 400, a home platform 430 may be installed on or in a transport vehicle 440 (e.g., mounted to the transport vehicle 440 on rails which allow the home platform 460 to be pulled out of an open side door 441 of the transport vehicle). The transport vehicle may comprise a reserve tank 432 for holding cleaning media and having the refilling device 432a for refilling the onboard tank 414 of the UAV 410, and a power source 434 having a charging device 434a for charging a battery of the UAV 410. The reserve tank 432 and the power source 434, may be installed anywhere in or on the transport vehicle 440 (e.g., in a cargo bay). FIG. 7B shows another embodiment of the present invention 500, wherein the transport vehicle comprises a side door 541 for access to the cargo area, and a top-hatch door 542 allowing the home platform 530 to extend up through the roof of the vehicle.

The foregoing descriptions of specific embodiments of the present invention have been presented for purposes of illustration and description. They are not intended to be exhaustive or to limit the invention to the precise forms disclosed, and many modifications and variations are possible in light of the above teaching. The embodiments were chosen and described in order to best explain the principles of the invention and its practical application, to thereby enable others skilled in the art to best utilize the invention and various embodiments with various modifications as are suited to the particular use contemplated.