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How a Robot Is Changing the Game of Antarctic Science

Mar 01, 2013   |   by Jeffrey Marlow   |   Wired Science

The trek across the Antarctic ice sheet is a long, hazardous, and costly journey for scientific researchers working in the world’s most remote location. Astronomers, geologists, and biologists regularly spend much of their field season and over 70% of their hard-earned grant money on logistical support—an intricate choreography of supply planes, snowmobiles, and tractors meant to move gear to where it needs to be.

Laura Ray
Professor Laura Ray

One of the most significant time sinks is the crevasse-detection process, which involves a massive snowcat tractor treading its way slowly across the ice. As Laura Ray, a Professor of Engineering at Dartmouth, describes it, a 6-meter long pole extends from the front of the vehicle with a ground penetrating radar (GPR) instrument at its end. As the driver inches forward, the system surveys the subsurface like a metal detector-wielding beachcomber tentatively looking for buried treasure. Sitting nearby is a technician, eyes glued to a screen that displays the GPR data in real time. Inch by inch, data streams across the monitor: if the look-out thinks it indicates a crevasse, she has two seconds to press an emergency stop button. Making the right choice could be the difference between smooth passage and a costly, time-consuming, dangerous crash.

It’s an important and likely life-saving program—one born from frightening mishaps—but it soaks up a lot of time. “It’s tedious and tiring,” says Ray, “and there are few people that do it well.”

Extreme conditions, long hours, and tedium: just the job for a robot. Ray and her colleagues have spent years developing such a tool, and the latest edition of the Yeti autonomous vehicle offers important financial and scientific benefits.

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