Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Natural disasters are often compounded by the power failures and cell tower outages that they cause, but a team of engineers led by Nina Mahmoudian of Michigan Technological University is developing a new team of robots that could solve these issues, assisting search-and-rescue operations in the process.
Mahmoudian and her colleagues, who presented their research at the 19th World Congress of the International Federation of Automatic Control in South Africa last month, have already developed a tabletop model of an autonomous power distribution system that can bring electricity to where it is needed most.
“The aim is to study the use of the autonomous mobile power-grid systems after disasters to accelerate search, rescue, and recovery efforts,” the authors of the study wrote. “The concept is demonstrated through an autonomous electrical cabling and connection mission between a power source and a power load in a cluttered environment using lab-size platforms.”
Their system “will be scalable to real-size” and that it would emphasize returning power to communications towers, they added. “The ultimate goal of this work is developing intelligent power electronics and a distributed autonomous mobile microgrid. It will be capable of regulating power flow at a desired voltage and frequency level, meeting load demands and adaptable to changes in situation, power demands, or generations.”
Those towers are typically located in hard-to-reach areas, assistant mechanical engineering professor Mahmoudian explained in a statement. Deploying robots to those places to restore power could get the lines of communication back up and running more quickly, thus making it easier for rescue personnel to find and assist those individual who are most in need.
The developers have programmed robots to restore power in small electrical networks, link up power cords and batteries to light a small lamp or set a flag waving with a small electrical motor, the study authors said. The machines operate independently, selecting the shortest path and avoiding obstacles during their journey.
The robots are capable of transporting devices such as batteries, photovoltaic systems or generators – and they can even recharge each other. Furthermore, the team said that they are working with electrical engineers to incorporate power converters into the machines, since different countries have different electrical requirements.
In addition to helping with disaster recovery efforts, their autonomous power distribution system could also be used by military personnel, especially for special forces companies participating in covert missions. Mahmoudian explained that in these cases, the power systems could be set up at a location before the troops arrive, making it so that the soldiers are not required to carry heavy equipment with them.
For their next project, the research team is looking to develop a full-sized working model of the robot network. Their first one will be a tank-like vehicle that was donated by Michigan Tech’s Keweenaw Research Center, and Mahmoudian said that this project “will let us develop path-planning algorithms that will work in the real world.”
In addition to Mahmoudian and Weaver, co-authors on the study included mechanical engineering graduate student Barzin Moridian, electrical engineering undergraduate Daryl Bennett and mechanical engineering professor Rush Robinett. The research was funded by the Michigan Tech Center for Agile Interconnected Microgrids.