Blackout-fighting robots could be heroes during a disaster

You’ve almost certainly encountered this situation in a video game: a disaster causes a blackout, so you need to get to the communications towers to restore power and call for help.

In reality it would be a severe challenge, potentially fraught with incredible danger, while the survival chances for the severely injured dwindled every minute.

However, a team from Michigan Technological University believes they may have a solution: robots that can access and turn back on communications towers.

“If we can regain power in communication towers, then we can find the people we need to rescue, and the human rescuers can communicate with each other,” explained Nina Mahmoudian, team leader and assistant professor of mechanical engineering at MTU.

The team has developed a tabletop model of the system, which involves a group of robots working independently to establish emergency power. Now that has proved successful, the next step is to make a full-scale version.

Each robot within the system is programmed to take the shortest path to its destination whilst avoiding any obstacles that it encounters.

In the tabletop version the robots can restore power within an electrical network to light an LED or set a motorised flag waving, however, the same technology could be scaled up to restore a communications tower.

Currently each mini robot is powered by a 12V battery, however on a life-size version a number of different power sources could be used.

“Our robots can carry batteries, or possibly a photovoltaic system or a generator,” added Mahmoudian.

As their tabletop system is an effective proof-of-concept, the team is now working on developing life-size robots.

The first, which looks like a cross between a tank and the bottom half of WALL-E, is based on an existing robot, however the team will need to develop an array of algorithms to enable it to successfully navigate real-world environments.


In addition to re-establishing communications in disasters, the robotic system could prove useful in a number of other environments.

For example, the system’s ability to establish power networks means the team believe it could of significant use to the military.

“This will let us develop path-planning algorithms that will work in the real world,” said Mahmoudian.

Their design could also be adjusted to make their primary purpose to re-charge other robots. This would provide an on-the-go fuelling system that would be of use both on land and in the sea.

Mahmoudian proposed a fleet of diving refuelling robots, which could be used to keep underwater search robots going in the critical first hours after an accident.

Inline image courtesy of Michigan Tech.

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