Polar robots to explore the Arctic

It's now almost certain that the world's ice shelves are melting. And while satellites provide lots of data about their evolution, ground-based weather stations could be even more useful. But if scientists can no longer stay on fragile and volatile ice sheets, what can they do? They can use specially designed robots called SnoMotes developed by U.S. researchers. 'The SnoMotes work as a team, autonomously collaborating among themselves to cover all the necessary ground to gather assigned scientific measurements.' More importantly, a SnoMote is an 'expendable rover that wouldn't break a research team's bank if it were lost during an experiment,' according to the lead researcher. But read more...

It's now almost certain that the world's ice shelves are melting. And while satellites provide lots of data about their evolution, ground-based weather stations could be even more useful. But if scientists can no longer stay on fragile and volatile ice sheets, what can they do? They can use specially designed robots called SnoMotes developed by U.S. researchers. 'The SnoMotes work as a team, autonomously collaborating among themselves to cover all the necessary ground to gather assigned scientific measurements.' More importantly, a SnoMote is an 'expendable rover that wouldn't break a research team's bank if it were lost during an experiment,' according to the lead researcher. But read more...

Ayanna Howard working on SnoMotes

You can see on the left a picture of Ayanna Howard, an associate professor at Georgia Tech, with a couple of SnoMotes. (Credit: Rob Felt, Georgia Tech) Here is a link to a larger version of this photo.

This research work has been led by Ayanna Howard, an associate professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Georgia Tech and founder of the Human-Automation Systems (HumAnS) Lab. Howard previously worked with rovers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory -- and this current project is still funded by NASA. For this project, Howard is working with Magnus Egerstedt, another associate professor at Georgia Tech, and with Derrick Lampkin, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography at Penn State who "studies ice sheets and how changes in climate contribute to changes in these large ice masses."

Here are more details about these robots. "The SnoMotes are autonomous robots and are not remote-controlled. They use cameras and sensors to navigate their environment. Though current prototype models don’t include a full range of sensors, the robots will eventually be equipped with all the sensors and instruments needed to take measurements specified by the scientist."

According to the researchers, their robots are demonstrating two key innovations: "a new method of location and work allocation communication between robots and maneuvering in ice conditions. Once placed on site, the robots place themselves at strategic locations to make sure all the assigned ground is covered. Howard and her team are testing two different methods that allow the robots to decide amongst themselves which positions they will take to get all the necessary measurements."

For more information, you can read a Lampkin article in the October 2007 issue of Geotimes, "Polar Robots Do a Cold Job." It starts with a 'funny' quote from Ernest Shackleton (Wikipedia link). Here is the announcement Shackleton wrote when trying to find personnel for his Endurance Expedition between 1914 and 1916: "Men wanted for hazardous journey: Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success."

Such robotic systems have been described by Howard and several of her colleagues during the 2007 Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). Here is a short quote from the abstract of this presentation, "Development of Autonomous, Robotic Meteorological Stations for Improved Ice Sheet Climate Monitoring." "Greenland and Antarctica. AWS units measure air temperature, wind speed and direction, air pressure, relative humidity. We have developed a prototype system consisting of a dynamic mast apparatus, meteorlogical instrument package, and track platform. A distributed network of these units that are relatively cheap, wireless capable, could provided am adaptive moderate scale monitoring system designed to augment the existing AWS network. Such a network would greatly improve our capacity as ice sheet scientists to assess the stability of these vital structures."

Finally, the autonomous SnoMotes have been presented at the 2008 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA 2008) held in Pasadena, California, on May 19-23, 2008. Here is a link to the abstract of this presentation, "Automatic Deployment and Formation Control of Decentralized Multi-Agent Networks. "Novel tools are needed to deploy multi-agent networks in applications that require a high degree of accuracy in the achievement and maintenance of geometric formations. This is the case when deploying distributed sensing devices across large spatial domains. Through so-called Embedded Graph Grammars (EGGs), this paper develops a method for automatically generating control programs that ensure that a multi-robot network is deployed according to the desired configuration. This paper also presents a communication protocol needed for implementing and executing the control programs in an accurate and deadlock-free manner."

Sources: Georgia Institute of Technology news release, May 27, 2008; and various websites

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