September 22, 2015

Iowa State engineer develops power-saving tools to keep solar-powered robots in action

Ran Dai, foreground, is working to develop technologies that will help robots
manage their energy use to improve efficiency and battery life. Many students
are assisting with the project, including, back row, left to right, Kishan Patel,
Justin Vandentop, Adam Kaplan and front row, left to right, Nathaniel Kingry
and Yen-Chen Liu. Larger photo. Photo by Christopher Gannon.

(September 22, 2015)  The small robots in Ran Dai’s basement lab at Iowa State University look like fancy electronic toys. But they’re really very smart. And they’re getting smarter.

Dai, an Iowa State assistant professor and Black and Veatch Faculty Fellow in aerospace engineering, is developing power-management technologies that would allow land- and air-based robots to monitor solar conditions so they can maximize operating efficiency and battery life.

That’s right. The robots would decide for themselves the best way to maximize energy production and minimize energy loss.

“It’s these solar-harvesting and power-management functions that can make any robot work longer, or even permanently,” Dai said. “That could make these robots smarter than the Mars rovers.”

Those smart robots could be put to work in all kinds of applications, including search and rescue, agriculture, surveillance or environmental monitoring.

Dai’s power-management research is supported by a five-year, $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. The grant is from the foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program designed to support the research and teaching of junior faculty.

Dai has been working on power-management technologies since her days as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle. That project involved real-time management of aircraft power systems to increase the energy efficiency of Boeing 787s.

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