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Tractors pull sleds across snow.
Photo Credit: Andy Jager
The South Pole Traverse makes its way up the Leverett Glacier in 2011. The 1,000-mile route between McMurdo and South Pole stations has become a key operation in the U.S. Antarctic Program over the last decade.

Keep on truckin'

South Pole Traverse adds second train, tests robotic tractors

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Ten years ago, the idea to drive across more than 1,000 miles of Antarctic wilderness between McMurdo and South Pole External U.S. government site 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 External U.S. government site research stations. It saves the National Science Foundation External U.S. government site 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) External U.S. government site, which has been involved with the development of the traverse capability since its beginning.

Person works atop a tractor.
Photo Credit: Jim Lever
Researcher Dom Jonak from Carnegie Mellon University prepares a suite of robotic sensors for a test run along the South Pole Traverse route to the McMurdo shear zone in February 2011.

“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 External Non-U.S. government site 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.”1 2   Next