System detects electrical failure before it happensMar 22, 2019
Corroded heater coils detected by the NILM Dashboard system at right. At left is a new heater coil.
As voyaging sailboats have gotten more complicated electrically, voyagers have a bigger task in maintaining them. One way to do this is by following detailed a replacement schedule. Even if you fastidiously maintain this database, however, gear can fail before it reaches the end of its expected lifetime. What if there was a system that monitored the gear on a boat and let you know something was about to fail so you could replace it before that happened? (Sort of like the computer HAL in the film 2001, but without the homicidal bent.) Researchers at MIT have developed such a system and it was recently tested on board the Coast Guard cutter Spencer.
Dubbed the non-intrusive load monitoring (NILM) Dashboard system, it was developed by MIT professor Steven Leeb, recent MIT graduate Andre Aboulian (MS '18) along with others at MIT, the USCG and the US Naval Academy. The NILM Dashboard is able to sense the flow of current in a wire and then interpret the distinctive "signatures" of pumps, motors, or other electrical devices. These signatures are developed as the units switch on and off. A healthy device will have a recognizable and repeating signature. The NILM Dashboard can tell from changes in that signature that the device is experiencing problems and may be about to fail.
In tests aboard the 270-foot Famous-class USCG cutter Spencer, the system correctly diagnosed problems with jacket water heater coils on the vessel's diesel engine. The coils had not previously been noted to be malfunctioning, but when alerted to possible problems by the NILM system, crew members removed protective covers and smoke poured out and the coils were seen to have damaged insulation and substantial corrosion.
When a system like this might trickle down to voyaging boats is unknown, but a NILM Dashboard approach would undoubtedly be attractive to voyagers in helping them stay ahead of electrical equipment failure.