Aug 062011
Maneuvering Melt Ponds

Image by NASA ICE via Flickr

New robots undergoing field tests could expand scientists’ access to polar regions and improve understanding of climate change

SUMMIT STATION, Greenland — The midnight sun is shining on the Greenland ice sheet, and Yeti Robot is out for a spin.

The probe’s chunky tires crunch a trail through the snow, then jerk to a stop. A blue plastic sled carrying a ground-penetrating radar crashes into Yeti’s boxy black chassis, still tied to the robot by nylon ropes.

Yeti’s handlers try to diagnose the problem. The robot is swinging too wide on its right turns, straying from the path programmed into its onboard GPS. The engineers confer. Seconds later, Yeti is again whizzing toward the horizon.

It’s the first day of this year’s field tests, and the researchers are eager to show off their prize pupil. If all goes well, battery-powered Yeti and its close relative — a solar-powered version called Cool Robot — could one day expand scientists’ access to Earth’s poles and enhance their ability to study how climate change is speeding the melt of Greenland’s ice sheet.

The robots are part of a new breed of autonomous rovers, submarines, ocean gliders and unmanned aircraft designed to go places scientists can’t, to handle jobs that are too dangerous or too costly for researchers to undertake themselves.

“It’s expensive to put researchers in the field,” said Jim Lever, a mechanical engineer at the Army’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory who helped develop Yeti and Cool Robot with colleagues at Dartmouth University and the University of New Hampshire. “You have a logistics train to support them.”

That logistics train includes the U.S. Air Force’s ski-equipped LC-130 cargo planes, which ferry personnel, scientific equipment, food and other basic supplies to the National Science Foundation?’s research camps in Greenland and Antarctica. The flight that brought Yeti’s handlers to the summit of Greenland’s ice sheet in mid-July carried everything from a fresh supply of weather balloons to a crate of cantaloupes.

Hauling stuff and finding the crevasse
But those flights can’t deliver all the supplies it takes to keep NSF’s far-flung polar research camps operating. Twice a year — once at each pole — the agency sends teams of station staff on overland treks to deliver fuel and other cargo to prepare remote outposts in Greenland and Antarctica for their busy summer research seasons.

Case tractors drag huge cargo sleds along the ice, journeys that normally take weeks to complete. It’s a dangerous job. Teams must watch for crevasses in polar ice, using radar hanging on a boom about 20 feet in front of the lead tractor.

“If you see a crevasse, you have a couple of seconds to stop the vehicle,” said Laura Ray, a professor at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering who helped create Yeti and Cool Robot. “As you can imagine, that’s a fairly fatiguing, stressful job.”

Ray and her colleagues say Yeti could help make those supply treks safer. The robot, outfitted with a ground-penetrating radar, could take over the job of scouting for crevasses — and interpret those data on the fly. The current version of Yeti is constructed from $25,000 worth of parts, including military-rated, ultralight batteries that can travel 10 to 15 kilometers before they need to be recharged.

“There are things that Yeti can cross that the big vehicle can’t because it’s so heavy,” Ray said. “If there’s a crevasse hidden by a snow bridge, Yeti won’t fall through because it’s so light. … At some point, we hope NSF will see this as a fairly valuable logistics vehicle that saves money in the long run.”

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