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Powerbots restore power after disasters

Hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis.  Disasters happen and governments respond. And key to delivering emergency services is getting the power back on. When the damage is widespread, however, many critical facilities may be difficult to reach, especially infrastructure such as cell towers. 

Nina Mahmoudian is working to develop teams of robots that can be sent unattended into damaged facilities to detect the power requirements and either reconnect or deliver power from batteries carried on the robots.

Mahmoudian, assistant professor of mechanical engineering-engineering mechanics at Michigan Technological University, and her team have demonstrated just such a capability using two commercially available DaNI robots in their laboratory.

In this proof-of-concept demonstration, the two powerbots maneuvered around obstacles, selecting the shortest path, and used infrared sensors to detect their target – a lamp needing power.  The robots then aligned on-board magnetic plugs to the magnetic receptacles on the target and made a connection to deliver power from on-board batteries.

These powerbots, however, will do a lot more than simply make connections. 

“We want to have a robot that can universally serve different loads,” Mahmoudian said. “In the long run we want a robot that can detect the appropriate voltage needed.  We are designing boards that can do that so we can convert what we have in the power source to what is needed at the load.”

In addition to developing power detection and conversion boards, the team is working to refine the maneuvering capabilities of the robots to make them completely autonomous.

“There are available algorithms that we are using,” Mahmoudian said.  “But for the type of applications that we are considering – mobile with unknown obstacles – we are adding to them.  In the end, the software that we will put on the robot will be sensor-based, and not GPS-driven or human-driven.  So the resulting algorithm will be ours because we have to extend what is available.”

Mahmoudian also envisions more robots working together to deliver power.  “I’m thinking we ought to have 10 robots working together,” she said.  That would allow the system to accommodate different types of equipment needing power at different voltages.  “Having small robots, we are limited in the size of the power source they can carry,” she said.  “You might have robots that are extending the connection, and we can use robots connected to each other to deliver higher voltage.” 

The robots could also recharge one another, a capability that would come in especially useful in remote operations, such as the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.  If robots could deliver power charges to the search vehicles, those vehicles could spend more time searching and less time returning to the surface for a recharge.

Mahmoudian also suggested that as powerbots of different sizes and capabilities are developed, it would make sense to design facilities with powerbots in mind.  Standardized magnetic receptacles placed in protected locations and with beacons to allow for easy locating by powerbots, for example, would make the job of restoring services much easier.

Posted by Patrick Marshall on Oct 21, 2014 at 12:44 PM


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