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Curiosity's Cousins: Autonomous Polar Robots Explore Earth's Extremes

Dec 14, 2012   |   by Nadia Drake   |   Wired Science

Earth’s poles are the wheeling grounds for two polar rovers: solar-powered Cool Robot and its younger cousin Yeti.

The pair, designed by a team led by engineer Laura Ray at Dartmouth, are among the first autonomous polar robots to go to work. Now, knee-high Yeti is on an expedition to Antarctica, peering beneath the ice and snow on Mt. Erebus, in search of steam-carved caves hiding in the volcano’s ice cap.

“The idea was that we should have terrestrial robots — rovers that can do science missions much like planetary rovers,” said team member James Lever, an engineer at the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory. “They can be less expensive. It’s not quite as harsh as a planetary mission. But it’s still pretty demanding.”...

...In December 2011, Yeti helped researchers study the buried remains of the original South Pole station, a collection of buildings built in 1956. Abandoned in the 1970s, “Old Pole” now lies under roughly 30 feet of snow. Yeti’s job was to find out if any of the buildings were still intact, creating voids that are hazardous to people on the surface above. “If the structures are collapsed under the weight of the snow, they’re OK as is,” Lever said. If not, it could be crushed by machinery trundling along above it. Yeti’s studies show that despite demolition by explosives in 2010, some of the buried buildings appear to be intact.

Yeti at the South Pole

Now, Yeti has returned to Antarctica, where it will be joining an 11-person team studying Mt. Erebus, Earth’s most southern active volcano. Until January, the robot will be looking for hidden ice caves formed by fumaroles, vents that send hot vapors and gases into the surrounding ice. Using a machine-learning approach, Dartmouth graduate student Rebecca Williams is also teaching Yeti how to analyze the crevasse-finding radar images, rather than sending the data to a human for processing.

In the future, scientists hope autonomous polar robots will be able to substantially contribute to research projects at the poles, perhaps by deploying and maintaining a network of space weather sensors – which need continual repositioning in response to shifting solar storms – or by studying glaciers and icy terrains.

Testing Cool Robot

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