The use of automated technologies such as robots and drones are gaining interest in the power sector, with their ability to be deployed in remote or harsh environments for inspection and fault finding. But now a group of researchers at Michigan Technological University are taking the concept a step further, with the development of a robot system that could deploy a microgrid for power restoration in cases of disaster.
So far the team led by Nina Mahmoudian of MTU’s Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics Department, has developed a proof-of-concept tabletop model of the system. The ultimate goal of the work, integrating vehicle robotics, intelligent power electronics and electric power assets, is to develop a distributed autonomous mobile microgrid that is capable of regulating power, meeting load demands and adapting to changing situations and power demands.
Focus on cell towers
The focus for Mahmoudian and her team with the technology – named an “autonomous power distribution system” – is on cell towers as critical infrastructure. These are often located in hard-to-reach places.
“If we can regain power in communication towers, then we can find the people we need to rescue,” explains Mahmoudian. “If we could deploy robots there, that would be the first step toward recovery.”
The team has programmed robots to restore power in small electrical networks, linking up power cords and batteries to light a little lamp or set a flag to waving with a small electrical motor. The robots operate independently, choosing the shortest path and avoiding obstacles with a camera and infra-red sensing system – just as if they were hooking up an emergency power source to a cell tower.
“Our robots can carry batteries, or possibly a photovoltaic system or a generator,” Mahmoudian says.
Working model under development
The next project is the development of a full-size, working model of the robot network. The robot is a tank-like vehicle donated by Michigan Tech’s Keweenaw Research Center, which will enable development of path-planning algorithms that will work in the real world.
The team is also working with Wayne Weaver, the Dave House Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering, to incorporate a power converter, since different systems and countries have different electrical requirements.
In addition to disaster recovery, the team believes the technology could have military uses, such as setting up power systems for special forces on missions before their arrival on-site.
The robots could also recharge one another, an application that would be as attractive for both terrestrial and ocean missions, such as searching for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Mahmoudian envisions a fleet of fuel mules that could dive underwater and charge up the searching robot, enabling it to spend more time in the search, while the mules return to the mother ship.