Engineers from Michigan Technological University are experimenting with the use of automated devices to fix power outages in emergency situations.

Disasters on a significant scale in populated areas invariably result in power outages and communications cuts – both of which can further exacerbate the hazards caused by the initial event by depriving local residents of power, as well as hampering the efforts of rescue teams.

Nina Mahmoudian, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Michigan Technological University, believes that robots could be the key to repairing compromised power and communications infrastructure during disaster events because of their enhanced ability to access hard-to-reach facilities such as cell towers.

The result could be a dramatic increase in the capabilities of rescue teams in disaster-struck areas.

“If we can regain power in communication towers, then we can find the people we need to rescue,” said Mahmoudian. “And the human rescuers can communicate with each other.”

Mahmoudian has led a team of researchers in in the development of a team of miniature robots to demonstrate the potential of automated machine for repair purposes in emergency scenarios.

The robots have been programmed to repair small electrical networks independently and free of human interference. The devices select the shortest path to areas in need of attention before setting forth on their own and avoiding any obstacles placed in their way.

Mahmoudian points out that the robots are capable of bearing batteries, photovoltaic systems and generators, and could potentially be used to recharge each other to further enhance their ability to operate in hard to access areas independently.

They are then capable of engaging in tasks such as connecting power cords to batteries to repair the electrical network. Restored operation of that network would be subsequently evidenced by a light bulb switching on or a small motor waving a flag.

Mahmoudian’s team is now working on the development of a full-scale working version of the robot team in order to develop better path-planning algorithms for real-world situations, as well as the incorporation of power converters into the devices to cater to the varying systems and electrical requirements of different countries

 The team received funding for the project from the Michigan Tech Center for Agile Interconnected Microgrids, and has already presented a paper in their work entitled Autonomous Power Distribution System at the 19th World Congress of the International Federation of Automatic Control held in Cape Town, South Africa, from August 24 to 29.