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'Cool robots' for Antarctica... and Mars

Researchers from the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College have built a robot designed to do research in Antarctica. The 'Cool Robot,' as it is called, has been tested in Greenland last year. Now NASA wants to test it in Antarctica and maybe use it in the future to search for life on Mars.
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Written by Roland Piquepaille, Inactive on

Researchers from the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College have built a robot designed to do research in Antarctica. This robot is a general purpose mobile platform that can carry various instruments and travel in polar temperatures. The 'Cool Robot,' as it is called, has been tested in Greenland last year. Now NASA wants to test it to detect the presence of bacteria in Antarctica snow. If this low-cost robot and its five siblings currently in the design phase are successful in this polar environment, they might be used in the future to search for life on Mars.

Here is the introduction of the The Dartmouth article. [Note: congratulations to the oldest America's oldest college newspaper, funded in 1799!]

Officially named the "Cool Robot" by students and faculty members at the Thayer School of Engineering, the robot designed to function in arctic temperatures may have surpassed "cool" and entered the realm of "out of this world," if the interest from NASA is any indication.
The robot, envisioned and built by a team of students and faculty members at the Thayer School of Engineering, could potentially be used by NASA for research in Antarctica, according to Professor Laura Ray, the team leader and primary investigator for the project.

Before going further, it's time to explore the Cool Robots world, starting with the goals of the project.

Our research task is the design and fabrication of a lightweight mobile robot that enables deployment of instrument networks in Antarctica. One can envision deploying multiple robots from the South Pole to desired locations on the plateau for long- or short-term observation, and retrieving or repositioning the robot network through Iridium-based communication.
Potential missions include deploying arrays of magnetometers, seismometers, radio receivers and meteorological instruments, measuring ionosphere disturbances through synchronization of GPS signals, using ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to survey crevasse-free routes for field parties or traverse teams, and conducting glaciological surveys with GPR. Robot arrays could also provide high-bandwidth communications links and mobile power systems for field scientists.

But what does this 'cool robot' looks like? It looks more efficient than 'sexy,' as you can see on these pictures shot during the trip to Greenland and picked from the dozens of ones available in this photo gallery (Credit, copyright and captions: Cool Robots project at Dartmouth).

On this one, the robot is dragging two of the researchers, but it can drag three of them without any locomotion problems.

Cool Robot dragging people

Below, the robot is pulling a 200 gallon water tank mounted on a sleigh. "This was at the very limit of the robot's capabilities."

Cool Robot pulling a water tank

Finally, the cool robot was able to successfully drive over obstacles, like this packed ridge of snow.

Cool Robot over obstacles

And what will be this robot useful for? Here are the answers from The Dartmouth.

"The robot is a general purpose mobile platform that can carry a host of different instruments," Ray said. One potential use of the robot includes transporting magnetometers which measure magnetic fields. In addition, it could be used by scientists who study climatology or glaciology to carry equipment across frigid plains.
Another scenario involves using the robot to ensure the safety of "ice runways" in Antarctica. These ice runways serve as landing strips for planes that fly to Antarctica and they must be sufficiently thick to support the weight of the incoming planes.

For more information about this project, you should read "The Design of a Mobile Robot for Instrument Network Deployment in Antarctica," a technical paper presented at the IEEE's International Conference on Robotics and Automation, April 18-22, 2005 in Barcelona (PDF format, 6 pages, 7.37 MB).

Now, will this robot (and its next versions) be successful in Antarctica and then explore Mars? It's too early to answer, but I wish good luck to the research team.

Sources: Zach Swiss, The Dartmouth, March 2, 2006; Thayer School of Engineering web site

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