Antarctic Robots: Don't Get Lost Out There
Aside from obvious environmental concerns, one obstacle to robo-success is navigation across a largely featureless terrain.
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 2-foot-long robots.
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.
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.
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.