Thanks to mobile phone technology, getting caught in a disaster means that help is only a call away – unless the disaster knocks out the electricity to the cell towers. To help bring the phones back on line to aid in recovery efforts, researchers at Michigan Technological University are developing a team of robots designed to restore power to towers and other communication sites.

Mobile phones are something of a double-edged sword. They've freed people from land lines, brought phone service to regions that have never seen a telegraph pole, and provided emergency services with a remarkably powerful tool to bring aid to people in disaster areas. The problem is that disasters tend to affect electricity supplies as well, which knocks mobile networks for six. The result is that it becomes more difficult for survivors to contact emergency services and for responders to communicate with one another.

How to set this right is a particular difficulty for mobile towers because they’re often set in remote hill-top locations, so getting them operating again quickly without waiting for the power grid to come back online can be very time consuming. A Michigan Tech team, led by assistant professor of mechanical engineering–engineering mechanics Nina Mahmoudian, has come up with a solution that uses a team of robots that work together to provide electricity to mobile towers or other isolated areas in a blackout emergency.

Currently a proof-of-concept tabletop model, the Michigan Tech robotic system consists of a team of miniature robots that use lamps and a flag made to wave with a small motor to represent cell towers. In a demonstration, one robot scanned the area for obstacles, computed an open path to the objective, and then navigated its own way. When it reached its goal, the robot then maneuvered to a docking port on the objective; in this case, a lamp. Then, a second robot came from a different quarter, but instead of docking with the lamp, the second robot docked with the first. The second robot hooked a power cable to the first using a magnetic coupler and then undocked and moved off, playing out the cable as it moved to a second objective, which it docked with, completing the circuit.

In the real world, this demonstration would have seen a full-sized robot dock with a cell tower, then a second robot would dock with the first, then play out a cable to a power source, such as a substation or a field generator. Mahmoudian says that the robots could also carry batteries, a generator, solar panels, or a power converter to connect incompatible electrical systems.

Another application seen by the team is in military operations, where the robots could be used to forward position power units in advance of the arrival of infantry or special forces.

The team says that the next step for the project will be to adapt the system to larger robots, such as a tank-like machine donated by Michigan Tech’s Keweenaw Research Center. In addition, they will work on developing ways for the robots to recharge one another and to adapt the technology for undersea work.

The team presented their results in a paper (PDF) at the 19th World Congress of the International Federation of Automatic Control.

The video below shows the Michigan Tech robots in action.

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