Icy reception awaits new robots

Robots and unmanned vehicles can drop bombs, fight fires, fix spacecraft problems, conduct orchestras but until now, they generally haven’t been created to handle the harsh environments of Alaska and the South Pole.

Scientists working to understand how and why the world’s ice shelves are melting needed something else: Enter SnoMote. Designed by researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology and the Pennsylvania State University, SnoMotes are autonomous robots and are not remote-controlled, researchers said. They use sensors and some artificial intelligence to navigate the volatile ice sheet environment. Though current prototype models don’t include a full range of sensors, the robots will eventually be equipped with all the sensors and instruments needed to take measurements specified by the scientist, researchers said.

The SnoMote represents two key innovations in rovers: a new method of location and work allocation communication between robots and maneuvering in ice conditions, researchers said. Once placed on a research site, the robots place themselves at strategic locations to make sure all the assigned ground is covered. Researchers are testing two different methods that allow the robots to decide amongst themselves which positions they will take to get all the necessary measurements. This “auction” system lets the robots “bid” on a desired location, based on their proximity to the base camp and how well their instruments are working or whether they have the necessary instrument (one may have a damaged wind sensor or another may have low battery power).

The second method is more mathematical, fixing the robots to certain positions in a net of sorts that is then stretched to fit the targeted location, researchers said. In addition to location assignments, another key innovation of the SnoMote is its ability to find its way in snow conditions. While most rovers can use rocks or other landmarks to guide their movement, snow conditions present an added challenge by restricting topography and color (everything is white) from its guidance systems, researchers said. In snow conditions, the lines formed by snow banks could serve as markers to help the SnoMote track distance traveled, speed and direction. The SnoMote could also navigate via GPS if snow bank visuals aren’t available, researchers said.

While the SnoMotes are expected to pass their first real field test in Alaska next month, a heartier, more cold-resistant version will be needed for the Antarctic and other well below zero climates. These new rovers would include a heater to keep circuitry warm enough to function and sturdy plastic exterior that wouldn’t become brittle in extreme cold, researchers said.

“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,” said Derrick Lampkin, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography at Penn State.  

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