2010 Tdw Editoria 5f72e344b67bd

The Trickle-down Effect

Sept. 29, 2020
Sophisticated space technologies are subject to the trickle-down effect.

It seems that robots are everywhere I look lately. I guess I have become sensitive to the subject after writing last month’s “Charging Ahead” feature article about Droids & Drones. Honestly, I never expected to revisit the subject so quickly. I wasn’t even thinking about robots when I heard that NASA’s (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) was about to launch the Mars 2020 Mission. Yes, I’m one of those engineers who follow NASA.

I grew up in Florida with space launches being a way of life for a kid, then I worked in the aerospace industry as a college student, and I never got over it. In case you don’t follow NASA launches, the Mars 2020 Mission is NASA’s return to Mars with its newest rover, Perseverance. I clicked on a link and connected with the launch coverage.

After hearing the news, I hit the feed with ten minutes to spare. The commentators were filling empty air while waiting for the liftoff with every obscure mission fact they could find. They grabbed my attention when they started talking about the robotic cutting-edge technology the Perseverance mission represented. That got me thinking about the substation inspection/security droids we explored last month.

Granted the robotics being used on the grid is primitive in comparison to NASA’s autonomous Perseverance rover, but you have to start somewhere. And keep in mind, these sophisticated space technologies are subject to the trickle-down effect. That’s where this amazing technology finds its way into civilian applications. While I was lost in thought, an announcer caught my attention talking about a flying robot that was strapped to Perseverance’s belly.


Imagine, a droid with a drone attached to its belly. It was not just a drone, it was a specially designed solar powered autonomous drone. That snapped me out of my daydreaming, but I missed the beginning of the discussion, so I ran the discussion back to the beginning – another digital technology we take for granted. They were talking about NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter.

Ingenuity is a robotic rotorcraft that NASA designed to test powered flight in the thin Martian atmosphere. It’s equipped with computers, navigation sensors and high-definition cameras. NASA hopes it will perform the function of a robotic scout gathering imagines of the terrain in front of Perseverance as it travels about.

It’s hard to imagine the impact this is going to have when this technology trickles down to our grid’s droid and drone applications. As luck would have it, Dr. Andrew Phillips, vice president of Transmission and Distribution Infrastructure at EPRI (Electric Power Research Institute) and I had set up a video chat to catchup and talk about digital technologies. We have known each other for many years, and this would be a good time to kick around robotic topics.

EPRI has been working on transmission grid robotics for several decades. They have developed some interesting applications and Andrew has been in the thick of it all. EPRI’s autonomous “Ti” transmission line inspection robot has begun a yearlong field test with Ti roaming a 53 mile (85 km) high voltage transmission line. They also have created a climbing robot that paints lattice steel structures, and a line insulator inspecting robot.

After comparing notes on the newest Mars rover, we got down to talking shop - the role of droids on the power grid. Andrew told me, “COVID-19 is shaking up all aspects of normal operations. Getting people out in the field is a major challenge, especially in more remote areas. Utilities are being forced to prioritize their work, which is fueling a growing interest in supplementing staff with robotics and advanced monitoring applications. An autonomous inspector/maintenance robot is becoming a goal, but additional research is needed.”

Andrew explained, “Today, there are at least a half dozen unproven commercially available multipurpose robots being offered by vendors for grid work, but they’re mostly untested. EPRI sees the need for a third-party unbiased testing organization, which they can fill. EPRI has an energized 138 kV substation, which is being set up as an operational test lab to evaluate these robots and their sensor payloads under real world conditions 24/7.”

Having spent over thirty years building substations, I understand completely how challenging these facilities can be to the uninitiated. There is definitely a need for this type of third-party testing. After all, you can’t have the maintenance droid breaking down and requiring human rescue; it defeats the purpose of having the droid!

About the Author

Gene Wolf

Gene Wolf has been designing and building substations and other high technology facilities for over 32 years. He received his BSEE from Wichita State University. He received his MSEE from New Mexico State University. He is a registered professional engineer in the states of California and New Mexico. He started his career as a substation engineer for Kansas Gas and Electric, retired as the Principal Engineer of Stations for Public Service Company of New Mexico recently, and founded Lone Wolf Engineering, LLC an engineering consulting company.  

Gene is widely recognized as a technical leader in the electric power industry. Gene is a fellow of the IEEE. He is the former Chairman of the IEEE PES T&D Committee. He has held the position of the Chairman of the HVDC & FACTS Subcommittee and membership in many T&D working groups. Gene is also active in renewable energy. He sponsored the formation of the “Integration of Renewable Energy into the Transmission & Distribution Grids” subcommittee and the “Intelligent Grid Transmission and Distribution” subcommittee within the Transmission and Distribution committee.

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