May 29, 2008

Durable Robots Set to Explore Antarctica

Researchers at Georgia Tech have designed a robot that they hope will be able to cope with the treacherous challenges of exploring Antarctica.

The so-called SnoMote is designed like a snowmobile, and researchers say it should be able to handle the slippery icy terrain.

The team, led by associate professor Ayanna Howard received a NASA grant for their development of the 2-foot-long robots. Howard also created an "auction" system by which SnoMotes will be able to communicate with each other and "bid" as to which site it will investigate.

The SnoMote represents two key innovations in rovers: a new method of location and work allocation communication between robots and maneuvering in ice conditions.

The largest challenge will be creating a navigation system for the rovers, as distinguishing features such as rocks are hard to find in Antarctica. They have proposed to use microscopic fissures in the ice to guide the robots across the frozen terrain.

"If you can come up with a way to classify these uniquely, you can come up with a way to navigate," Howard said.

So far, their tests have shown that the system works, but the ultimate test will come once the robot is sent to Alaska on a trial run. And even after passing that test, a stronger SnoMote model will be needed to cross into Antarctica.

Howard, along with Penn State University researcher Derrick Lampkin, has developed a strong winter-proof shell for the rover. It weighs almost 70 pounds, and could eventually come with heaters to keep computers running in the low temperatures.

Lampkin said his goal is to develop a "scale-adaptable, autonomous, mobile climate-monitoring network."

Another goal is to minimize costs for the rover so that it reaches its goal of about $10,000. The lower cost will allow more groups to utilize the rover for their own research in Antarctica and other frozen regions.

Howard said she envisions a field of 40 to 50 of the SnoMotes wandering icy plains, a small army gathering data to shed light on global warming and other quandaries without breaking the bank.

"The whole concept is: How do you do this in the most affordable way?" she said.

Currently, there are three working models so far.

Howard said the rovers are a crucial piece of the puzzle for researchers wanting to get unprecedented glimpses of climate conditions in a high-risk area.

"The changing mass of Greenland and Antarctica represents the largest unknown in predictions of global sea-level rise over the coming decades. Given the substantial impact these structures can have on future sea levels, improved monitoring of the ice sheet mass balance is of vital concern."