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Keep on truckin'

South Pole Traverse adds second train, tests robotic tractors


Ten years ago, the idea to drive across more than 1,000 miles of Antarctic wilderness between McMurdo and South Pole stations as an alternative way to supply the latter with fuel and cargo was just an audacious idea.

Now, Traverse Operations has two traverse platforms, South Pole Traverse 1 and 2 (SPoT1 and SPoT2), each making a round trip every austral summer between the U.S. Antarctic Program research stations. It saves the National Science Foundation upwards of $2 million for each swing across the continent. And, perhaps in the next couple of years, the tractor train will partially drive itself, using “robotic” vehicles capable of autonomously following a manned tractor in front of it.

“It’s lead-follow technology, basically ready to deploy,” said Paul Thur, Traverse Operations manager, of the technology that will allow the tractor train to run potentially as much as 19 hours a day.

“By running two shifts, you would almost halve the time to South Pole,” noted Jim Lever, a mechanical engineer with the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL), which has been involved with the development of the traverse capability since its beginning.

“It could be a big payoff,” he added.

Currently, it takes about 58 days to get to the South Pole and back from McMurdo. Thur estimates that would drop down to about 38 days once the autonomous system is implemented.

“It’s not as easy as running two shifts all the way to the Pole,” Thur explained. For example, the SPoT train would need to switch to all manual control for the crawl up the Leverett Glacier through the Transantarctic Mountains to the polar plateau, meaning the night shift would have to switch temporarily back to days.

Thur said that the technology would be tested and integrated with the vehicle operations over the next two field seasons. It’s a bit of reality meets science fiction: In Kim Stanley Robinson’s futuristic novel, Antarctica, he wrote 15 years ago about a very similar robotic traverse manned by a single person.

“We’re pretty close,” said Thur, though, in the real world, the traverse would still require a full crew, as half of the eight Case and Caterpillar tractors need a driver, working in two shifts. And drivers would still be needed to operate a tracked vehicle called a Pisten Bully, which leads the front of the train and carries ground-penetrating radar (GPR) on a long boom to detect crevasses near the surface of the ice.

But even that task could one day become more automated.

A PhD engineering student at Dartmouth College is developing software that will be able to detect a crevasse with a high degree of confidence based on the raw GPR data. Currently, that job falls to a human being who must monitor a screen that scrolls layers of radar data while sitting in the Pisten Bully.

“It would be awesome, because what I would think is nothing [on the screen], somebody else might want to check it out. It’s very subjective,” Thur said. “We’re by no means experts. There are people who do this radar stuff for a living, who have PhDs in radar analysis and things like that.”

The autonomous crevasse detection software is one aspect of a broader polar robotics program that Rebecca Williams and fellow engineering students at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering have been developing for the better part of a decade.

Her work involves developing higher-level intelligence and control software for a four-wheel robot dubbed Yeti that pulls a GPR behind it to find crevasses. For now, Yeti simply collects the data that a person trained in radar analysis later examines. Eventually, Williams would like Yeti to learn and recognize patterns in real-time, with the ability to further explore an area once a crevasse has been detected.

“The goal is to make [Yeti] smarter and to make him completely autonomous,” said Williams, who works under Laura Ray, a professor of engineering at Dartmouth.

Yeti has been tested in both Greenland and Antarctica. Last year in March, Williams had a chance to see the conditions that Yeti works in firsthand during a trip to the Arctic, where the Greenland Inland Traverse (GrIT) operates in support of science there.

“I got to sit in the hot seat of the radar operator and feel what it was like to experience the hours of boredom and moments of terror,” Williams said. “You’re just staring at a screen for hours and hours, seeing nothing, and then all of a sudden you see something. You have about four-and-a-half seconds to react to it and decide whether or not it is [a crevasse] and let people drive over it.”

Terry Billings has probably more hours of sheer boredom and moments of adventure driving across Antarctica than just about anyone around. For the last three years, he has led the SPoT on its annual supply run to the Pole, including being the first one out of the gate from McMurdo during the 2011-12 season when the Traverse Operations fielded two trains for the first time.

“It sounds so cool and romantic, but it takes a certain kind of individual who can handle the isolation, close quarters and gets along with people well,” said Billings during a stop at the South Pole back in December. “You need to be able to handle the boredom of it, because it does get to be ‘Groundhog Day.’ You do the same thing day after day.”

Though last year’s mission had some added complexity. Instead of returning back to McMurdo Station, Billings and his crew pioneered a new route to East Antarctica to recover thousands of pounds of equipment, such as generators and tents, from a field camp that had been used to explore a subglacial mountain range a couple of years ago.

“There is still that sense of adventure,” Billings said. “It’s not [Roald] Amundsen skiing to the Pole, but we’re kind of the modern-day version of that. Not a whole lot of other people are crossing the continent year after year and doing this.”

Thur said that last year’s two traverses, including the additional drive to East Antarctica, replaced the need for about 72 flights by the New York Air National Guard, which flies the ski-equipped LC-130 for support missions around the continent, but especially to the South Pole for delivering fuel and cargo.

SPoT saves not just fuel and carbon footprint. It frees the LC-130 for other support missions, particularly to far-flung field camps currently in operation in West Antarctica. And weather at McMurdo or South Pole that would cancel a flight generally isn’t a problem for the tractors.

Next season, Thur expects to again field two traverse trains, though one will primarily work in support of a field camp near the Ross Ice Shelf where scientists plan to drill into a subglacial lake, an operation that will require more than a dozen tractors to haul enough equipment to the site.

That’s in addition to making a trip to the South Pole and paying a second visit to the East Antarctic field camp to finish removing all of the material.

An audacious idea has become a full-time operation — and then some.

“Be careful what you wish for. It’s really ambitious now,” Lever said.

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Curator: Michael Lucibella, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Peter West, Division of Polar Programs