May 26, 2019 | Updated: 10:32 PM EDT

Disaster Averted On Board Coast Guard Ship Thanks to MIT Researchers

Mar 25, 2019 08:45 AM EDT

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In an era of electrical dependability, preventive maintenance could save companies and organizations billions of dollars a year. A new system devised by researchers at MIT can monitor the behavior of all electric devices within a building, ship, or factory, determining which ones are in use at any given time and whether any are showing signs of imminent failure. When tested on a Coast Guard cutter, the system pinpointed a motor with burnt-out wiring that could have led to a serious onboard fire.

The system uses a sensor that is attached to the outside of electrical wire at a single point, without requiring any cutting or splicing of wires. From that single point, it can sense the flow of current in the adjacent wire, and detect the distinctive "signatures" of each motor, pump, or piece of equipment in the circuit by analyzing tiny, unique fluctuations in the voltage and current whenever a device switches on or off. The system can also be used to monitor energy usage, to identify possible efficiency improvements and determine when and where devices are in use or sitting idle.

About 20 different motors and devices were being tracked by a single dashboard, connected to two different sensors, on the cutter USCGC Spencer. The sensors, which in this case had a hard-wired connection, showed that an anomalous amount of power was being drawn by a component of the ship's main diesel engines called a jacket water heater. At that point, Leeb says, crewmembers were skeptical about the reading but went to check it anyway. The heaters are hidden under protective metal covers, but as soon as the cover was removed from the suspect device, smoke came pouring out, and severe corrosion and broken insulation were clearly revealed.

"The ship is complicated," Leeb says. "It's magnificently run and maintained, but nobody is going to be able to spot everything."

Lt. Col. Nicholas Galanti, engineer officer on the cutter, says "the advance warning from Non-Intrusive Load Monitoring enabled Spencer to procure and replace these heaters during our in-port maintenance period and deploy with a fully mission-capable jacket water system. Furthermore, NILM detected a serious shock hazard and may have prevented a class Charlie [electrical] fire in our engine room."

Although for testing purposes the team has installed both hard-wired and non-contact versions of the monitoring system. The tests have shown that the non-contact version could likely produce sufficient information, making the installation process much simpler. 

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