NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, American Electric Power Inc. and Licom Inc. have agreed to jointly develop a fiber optics technology, AbNET, that would automate the systems used by utility companies to distribute electric power.

Developed at JPL with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, AbNET is a fiber optics communications system designed specifically for power systems, said Dr. Harold Kirkham, leader of the JPL team that developed the AbNET network.

"The technology is designed to monitor and control the equipment in use at substations, where power is transformed down for distribution to local areas, and to improve the operation of distribution systems used by utility companies," Kirkham said.

"The advantages of the technology are twofold: the system operates independently of topology, which means it doesn't matter in what configuration the network may be constructed," he said. "The other major advantage of the AbNET technology is that it is robust and information won't be lost if the network is damaged during operation."

Licom Inc., a company engaged in the design and marketing of communications products for power companies, acquired an exclusive license to AbNET. American Electric Power Inc., one of the nation's largest investor-owned utilities and a leader in technology development, is monitoring and testing a prototype system at the John E. Dolan Engineering Laboratory located near the company's headquarters in Columbus, Ohio.

Distribution automation is of growing interest to many of the nation's utilities because it improves the ability of utilities companies to restore service quickly and can be designed to be more responsive to the needs of customers. For instance, special switches can be installed to automatically switch off power to certain loads at specific times of the day to minimize peak demand.

The fiber optics automation may also improve methods of protecting and maintaining power lines by using remote detection systems that can alert system operators to faults or automatically isolate sections of distribution lines that are damaged and reconnect undamaged sections.

"AbNET is a robust fiber optics system with mass data transfer capability," Kirkham said. "It can make possible the monitoring and control needed for an automated distribution system. And because fiber optics systems can be developed to provide a steady stream of data about power system performance, they are more capable than radio-based systems, which often have to restrict the available data to overcome their bandwidth limitations."

JPL, American Electric Power Inc. and Licom will be working together during the 12-month pilot study to test AbNET's performance with staged faults and to examine the performance of several variations on the basic protocols, or rules by which the system operates. The demonstration is also designed to highlight the advantages of the fault tolerant protocols and the simplicity of using AbNET, which was designed to operate with no prior knowledge of network configuration.

Approximately 12 prototype fiber optic nodes are being developed for the demonstration, Kirkham said. Initially the system will be operated by personal computers. Later, these units will be replaced by prototype field units.

"We started out trying to develop low-cost hardware and use existing communication protocols," Kirkham explained. "In the end, the requirements of the power system led to a communication system that is unlike most networks. The hardware could be conventional, but the way the system operates is quite unusual."

Kirkham, who works in JPL's High Speed Optical Systems Group, is developing the AbNET network with a team of researchers in the Robotic Systems and Advanced Computer Technology Section. The work is being funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

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