The Next Generation of Electrical Workers: Microgrid Robots

Nov. 13, 2014
Microgrid robots offer the promise of safer and easier power restoration in storm-ravaged or war torn regions. Here’s a peak at work underway at the Michigan Technological University to create this next generation of non-human electrical workers.

Microgrids can provide power in remote, rugged. and even dangerous places. Problem is, you’ve got to put people in risky situations to build the microgrids – unless you send robots out to do the job.

Researchers at Michigan Technological University are hard at work creating these microgrid robots, a creation that could have a far reaching impact on how we restore power after disasters.

A team led by Nina Mahmoudian,  assistant professor, has put together a proof of concept for  robots that can traverse war zones or storm-ravaged terrain to build a mobile microgrid.

Robots now assist recovery efforts in other capacities following natural disasters. So it occurred to Mahmoudian: why not take robot capability one step further and have them restore power?

Called autonomous power distribution, the process uses a robot team that travels – even underwater – avoiding obstacles and debris that might make the going tough, if not impossible, for a human.

A video demonstration created by the lab shows in simple terms how it would work.  A lab-scaled robot powered by a battery travels to its designated location, finds a load source, and connects to it. A second robot then connects a power wire to the first through an electromagnetic connector. It pulls the wire to a power source, while keeping the connection secured to the first robot. A flag waves once the connection has been made. The robots avoid obstacles in their path with the use of  infrared sensors.

As a next step, the lab hopes to secure funding to establish a robot microgrid in real size and make it replicable with any number of robots. All aspects of it would be mobile, and it could establish itself in one location, then extend to another.

For example, during a natural disaster, the robots might build a microgrid at a hard-to-reach communications tower to restore cell phone service.

“There are some places that are so devastated, you cannot reach them. If we deploy robots, and they don’t need human intervention, and can establish this on their own, for the rescuers who are focusing their efforts on finding people,  it will be a big advantage,” Mahmoudian said.

Mahmoudian foresees mobile microgrids being used not only in disaster relief, but also for military purposes. Soldiers could travel to an operation with a lighter load if they send robots out in advance to put in place needed electrical sources.

“This can be used for establishing a power grid for soldiers before they arrive,” she said. “This will really increase the pace of the operation and make it more secure.”

Mahmoudian also believes robots eventually may assist with line repair during snowstorms  – “if we can get the technology to where they have arms and they can reach and recognize the failure.”

Science is at a point where it can build robots capable of many microgrid building tasks; the hard part is integrating the various pieces into a robot microgrid. It’s an “interdisciplinary” problem, Mahmoudian said.  The researchers  “can solve problems of mobility, reach, or power electronics on their own. But bringing mobility, power electronics and the underlying controls into one system presents the biggest challenge.”

The proof of concept was funded through the university’s Center for Agile and Interconnected Microgrids. As a next step, the research team hopes to establish a microgrid in real size and is seeking grant money for the basic research.

A video demonstration is available here.

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About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is an award-winning writer and editor who specializes in the energy industry. She is chief editor and co-founder of Microgrid Knowledge and serves as co-host of the publication’s popular conference series. She also co-founded RealEnergyWriters.com, where she continues to lead a team of energy writers who produce content for energy companies and advocacy organizations.

She has been writing about energy for more than two decades and is published widely. Her work can be found in prominent energy business journals as well as mainstream publications. She has been quoted by NPR, the Wall Street Journal and other notable media outlets.

“For an especially readable voice in the industry, the most consistent interpreter across these years has been the energy journalist Elisa Wood, whose Microgrid Knowledge (and conference) has aggregated more stories better than any other feed of its time,” wrote Malcolm McCullough, in the book, Downtime on the Microgrid, published by MIT Press in 2020.

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