New breed of robots could soon
By GREG BLUESTEIN, Associated Press Writer
Robotic rovers have patrolled deep space and the deepest seas,
but scientists are still struggling to create drones that can
overcome the multiple challenges of exploring Antarctica.
Georgia Tech researchers think the SnoMote — a small robot
designed like a snowmobile — will be able to deal with the nasty
weather and with slippery terrain that constantly cracks and
shifts. They envision dozens of SnoMotes roving Antarctica's
vast expanses to add to data already collected by satellites
and a handful of weather stations and sensors. Ayanna
Howard, an associate professor at Georgia Tech in Atlanta,
has worked for two years under a NASA grant to perfect the
Her initial designs with spider-like legs proved too
cumbersome to navigate snowbanks. So, she and her colleagues
leaned on others' designs, outfitting a snowmobile designed for
kids with sensors, gauges, and cameras, and then programming it.
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She developed a program that lets the SnoMotes negotiate
with each other and “bid” on which site to investigate, allowing
them to decide for themselves how to dole out their assignments.
The next challenge, though, was to come up with
navigation for the rovers. Other probes tend to use distinguishing
characteristics like rocks to chart their paths. But such features
can be hard to come by in vast icy expanses.
On a field trip to a Colorado glacier, Howard's team
discovered they could use microscopic fissures in the ice and
snowbanks to guide their way.
“If you can come up with a way to classify these uniquely,
you can come up with a way to navigate,” she said.
Simulations so far have proved her team's formula effective,
but plenty of challenges await when the robot is put to the test
on the glaciers of Alaska.
With Penn State University researcher Derrick Lampkin,
Howard has designed a shell that weighs 60 to 70 pounds, can
withstand harsh winters, and eventually could include heaters to
keep computers and wiring running in the cold.
Lampkin said his goal is to develop a "scale-adaptable,
autonomous, mobile climate-monitoring network."
The researchers hope the robots will ultimately cost around
$10,000, relatively cheap for governments, researchers, and
others seeking to document changing conditions in the world's
most remote places.
The more the better: Howard said in order for scientists to
say with certainty how climate change is affecting the ice, they
need plenty of accurate data points to create climate models.
She envisions a field of 40 to 50 of the SnoMotes wandering
icy plains, a small army gathering data to shed light on global
warming and other quandaries without breaking the bank.
“The whole concept is: How do you do this in the most
affordable way?” she said.
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