Best of the West: Robots ease regional supply chain issues; grid upgrades in New Mexico; Colorado farmer cuts cost with hydropower; beavers create oases from fire

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting Nov. 15, 2021. (Photos courtesy of Matthew Jonas,  Robert Barna, and Phil Robinson)

It’s long been envisioned in sci-fi movies and books, but as chronic labor shortages and the complexity of eCommerce supply chains stress business, robots are becoming more prevalent throughout the West, transforming a cost-saving exercise into a critical issue for competitiveness across nearly every industry.

recent survey of more than 600 small businesses in the U.S. found that 30 percent have already adopted digital tools to help compensate for a shortage of workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Robots can be seen scooting around campus at the University of Arizona and South Dakota State University delivering food to students. In Oregon, amid a climate of social distancing and overworked restaurant personnel, an eclectic restaurant located in the Portland area uses various robots to provide the restaurant staff some much-needed help carrying large heavy trays of food to and from the kitchen. California-based TuSimple, in collaboration with Navistar and UPS, is testing “supervised autonomous” trucking in Arizona and Texas, and the expects to phase out human supervision later this year. 

But it’s not just simple tasks that these robots are taking on. TRU Community Care in Colorado unveiled a humanoid robot that can perform basic medical tasks. In North Dakota, robots are helping doctors detect lung cancer. In New Mexico, Honda recently completed a field test with its fully electric Autonomous Work Vehicle (AWV) to perform a range of functions at a solar construction site

Ranging from contraptions the size of a toy wagon to two-ton beasts that resemble military tanks and can blast out 2,500 gallons of water per minute, some new robots are even capable of dangerous jobs, like firefighting. In Idaho, with a shortage of skills-based employees, timber companies are adopting robots to fill higher-risk jobs that can be hard to fill. Employees are trained to manage multiple robots, allowing them to cover more than one role, industry officials said.

POWERED UP: With booming oil and gas operations in the Permian Basin area, and the subsequent population increase brought on by the economic growth, Excel energy recently completed a major new electrical transmission line connecting Eddy and Lea counties in Southeast New Mexico – two of the fastest-growing counties in the state. “To ensure our customers have the necessary capacity to power that growth, we have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in upgraded and new lines and substations across this area. And in some places, we have built lines where there was virtually no infrastructure at all,” David Hudson, president of Xcel’s Texas and New Mexico operations, said.

HYDROPOWERED SAVINGS: Using water from an irrigation ditch, a farmer in Colorado made a mini-hydropower plant that will generate 5.9 kilowatts of electricity or about 6.7-megawatt-hours of electricity over the course of an irrigation season, off-setting the costs to power his center pivot sprinkler system. “There are 3,000 to 5,000 places in Colorado where you could do this,” a contractor with Advanced Energy Systems LLC, who's consulting on the project, said. “It’s quite an opportunity for society to explore.” 

BEAVER OASES: Scientists have long considered the beavers to be “nature’s engineers” because they reshape the ecosystem around them into wetlands. But recently scientists have made a new discovery: these beaver wetlands create emerald oases in an otherwise charred landscape, slowing down the spread of wildfires and providing refuges for animals to escape the flames.

KING OF THE MOUNTAIN: Phil Robinson, 66, trudged to the top of Mount Phillips, completing a roughly 16-year quest to reach the summits of the 184 tallest peaks in New Mexico. Robinson, a retired Albuquerque Public Schools science teacher, is believed to be the only person to tag the summits of that many tall New Mexico mountains. 

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