Yeti Robot Finds Deadly Antarctic Crevasses So We Donít Have To
2013-03-08 0:00

By Jason Bittel | Slate


Youíre traveling more than 1,000 miles across the barren snowscape of Antarctica. Along the way, many crevasses lie hidden between you and your quest to resupply the hungry scientists at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. The good news is you can detect these deathtraps with a radar arm. The bad news is it only gives you approximately four seconds of warning before you and your tracked vehicle, which weighs several tons, plummet to a dark and silent tomb. If only there were a robot that could map crevasses ahead of such expeditions. Preferably one with an adorable yet mildly ferocious name.

Meet the Yeti. This four-wheel-drive rover drags a ground-penetrating radar arm capable of logging information that tells scientists what liesóor more importantly, doesnít lieóbelow. At just 180 pounds, the bot crosses snow-covered crevasses like it ainít no thing. (Since people donít wander around on foot down there, the real danger is the heavy tracked vehicles breaking through the snow bridges.) It functions at temperatures around -20 degrees Fahrenheit. In short, Yeti is an awesome little minion redrawing the boundaries of hazard georeferencing.

Most of us donít have to think about such things, but doing science on the bottom of the world is a tricky endeavor. In addition to dangerous weather conditions and 30-foot-wide trapdoors in the ice, the logistics of assembling personnel, equipment, and supplies at the South Pole is nothing short of extraordinary.

ďThe focus of this effort was to support the actual operations and logistics side of the Polar Program,Ē James Lever, mechanical engineer and specialist in over-snow mobility for the U.S. Armyís Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, told me. (I bet you never heard a kindergartener say she wants to grow up to specialize in over-snow mobility.) Lever and his co-principal investigator professor Laura Ray published their findings this month in the Journal of Field Robotics. ďWhether you have researchers in Antarctica or Greenland, you have to keep people safe and comfortable. Youíre a long way from everything else and so itís expensive to do science there.Ē

The little Yetióand its predecessor, the solar-powered Cool Robotóhave found support from the operations and science arms of the National Science Foundation as well as NASAís Jet Propulsion Laboratoryóafter all, rover work on Earthís poles isnít so different from rover work on Mars or other celestial bodies. And the lessons we learn from tweaking Yeti may one day help us in space. For instance, one of the paperís coauthors from the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College is developing an algorithm to detect characteristic moments just before Yeti gets stuck. If the algorithm can prevent the bot from getting into jams in the first place, it saves Lever and his colleagues an annoying trip out into the white. For NASA on the other hand, an immobilized rover is a really expensive bummer. For as Lever put it, ďThey donít get theirs back.Ē

[...]

Read the full article at: slate.com








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