Page 2/2 Posted May 4, 2012
Polar robots ready to take bigger role in logistics
Advances in solar panel technology also helped, along with an innovative design that placed solar panels around the sides of the robot to take advantage of the high reflectivity from the snow-covered surface.
In 2010, Ray, Lever and Mary Albert, also a professor of engineering at Dartmouth, received a second grant from NSF to refine the Cool Robot and send it on a series of long-duration science missions in Greenland for atmospheric research. The engineers are hopeful Cool Robot will also eventually get a shot in the Antarctic.
“I think if we can prove it in one location, it will be a little easier to accept its utility in the Antarctic, too,” Lever said.
Powered by six lithium ion batteries, Yeti is designed for short-duration missions. Its primary work has been in support of overland traverses — tractors pulling sleds of cargo and fuel — in both Greenland and Antarctica by towing a GPR sled across the ice to find signs of possible crevasses, voids beneath the surface that make travel potentially hazardous.
In Antarctica, Yeti spent two previous summers collecting data in an area of the Ross Ice Shelf that has come to be known as the shear zone, for the great number of crevasses that riddle the ice. The South Pole operations Traverse (SPoT) must cross the shear zone every year en route to the bottom of the world to deliver cargo and fuel to the research station. [See related article — Keep on truckin': South Pole Traverse adds second train, tests robotic tractors.]
Yeti was designed and built by Dartmouth undergraduate students, some of whom had a chance to test their robot in both Greenland and Antarctica.
“Our major challenge was to come up with the entire electronics architecture and figure what processes we would use. Basically, build all of the electronics and the mechanical stuff,” said Eric Trautmann, a former Dartmouth electrical engineering undergrad who helped lead the student team. “That was a pretty interesting experience for us.”
Trautmann eventually graduated with a master’s degree from Dartmouth in machine learning and robotics. He is now working on a PhD from Stanford in neuroscience, working on ways to connect neural activity with prosthetics.
However, in 2010, he got a chance to deploy to McMurdo Station for more than a month to work with Yeti in the shear zone, troubleshooting some of the glitches that had emerged the season before.
“It was a pretty cool opportunity to … work in the field and show what Yeti was capable of doing,” he said. “It’s exciting to see it move forward.”
The Old Pole survey marked a significant milestone in the development of polar robots, Ray noted. She said Yeti is filling a real operational need, and it could also be used for research on ice dynamics, a field that makes use of radar surveys.
Blaisdell said the robot’s precision could make it an attractive option for other projects, such as surveying ice runways used by the McMurdo and South Pole stations.
“This task has provided very positive implications for lots of other tedious and exacting USAP tasks,” he said.
Ray said Yeti might return again to Antarctica to collect more data in the shear zone to develop autonomous crevasse detection, a project by Dartmouth graduate student Rebecca Williams.
“We want to continue to demonstrate that the robot has very good potential operationally,” Ray said.