First Test In One Of The Earth's Harshest Environments Is Passed By NASA's Polar Robotic Ranger

Power Consumption Test By NASA's Polar Robotic Ranger

NASA scientists have unleashed a new robot(polar rover) on the arctic terrain of Greenland with 30 mph gusts and temperatures down to minus 22 F, to demonstrate that its ability to operate with complete autonomy in one of Earth's harshest environments.

The robot known as GROVER, which stands for both Greenland Rover and Goddard Remotely Operated Vehicle for Exploration and Research, was designed by teams of students attending engineering boot camps at Goddard in the summers of 2010 and 2011 and later transferred to Boise State University for fine-tuning with NASA help. The polar robotic ranger carries ground-penetrating radar for analysis of snow and ice, and an autonomous control system. All of that is placed between two solar panels and two snowmobile tracks.

The researchers had already run the rover through tests at a beach in Maryland and in the snow in Idaho, but this recent test was the most rigorous. From May 6 to June 8, GROVER was tested at Summit Camp, the highest point in Greenland, and it was the vehicle's first polar experience. One of the main goals was proving that the robot could execute commands sent from afar over an Iridium satellite connection – an objective GROVER accomplished.

midnight sun Test By NASA's Polar Robotic Ranger

“When we saw it moving and travelling to the locations our professor had keyed in from Boise, we knew all of our hard work had paid off,” said Gabriel Trisca, a graduate student from Boise State University who has been involved in the GROVER project from its start. “GROVER has grown to be a fully-autonomous, GPS-guided and satellite-linked platform for scientific research.” Trisca accompanied the robot to Greenland.

GROVER collected and stored radar data over 18 miles during the five weeks it spent on the ice. During the testing, the rover was also able to transmit information in real time on how its onboard systems were performing. The robot’s solar-charged batteries allowed it to operate for up to 12 hours before having to recharge. Though the radar data is currently stored onboard and retrieved after a mission, the team hopes to eventually switch to a geostationary satellite connection that will allow the transmission of large amounts of data in real time.

"When you work at the poles, on the ice, it's cold, it's tiring, it's expensive and there's a limit to how much ground you can cover on snowmobiles," said Lora Koenig, a glaciologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "It would be great if autonomous robotic platforms could do part of this work -- especially the part where high winds and blowing snow try to freeze your skin.”

Gabriel Trisca (left) and Mark Robertson, graduate students at Boise State University, repair connectors on the motor controller for GROVER

“This is very common the first time you take an instrument into an environment like Greenland,” said Hans-Peter Marshall, a geoscientist at Boise State University and science adviser on the project. “It’s always more challenging than you thought it was going to be: Batteries don’t recharge as fast and they don’t last as long, and it takes computers and instrumentation longer to boot.”

The radar system emits a signal that bounces off different layers of the ice sheet. Researchers hope to use this data to study how snow and ice accumulates. Specifically, the team wanted to test the robot's ability to see a layer in the ice sheet that formed after an extreme melt event in the summer of 2012. According to the team, GROVER's radar was able to detect the melt and potentially estimate its thickness.

The research team had expected the robot to work around the clock, but the polar conditions that reached -22° F (-30° C) had a more drastic effect than expected. The 800-lb (363 kg) robot's electronics and battery system couldn't compete with Mother Nature's grasp.

That's not to mention the challenges of navigating uneven, icy terrain. The team had to continuously adjust GROVER's speed and power sent to each of its tracks to keep the drone from getting stuck, which contributed to its difficulties holding power.

Power Test By NASA's Polar Robotic Ranger

Though GROVER made many achievements in its first polar test, the team plans to potentially replace components that are hard to manipulate in the cold (like switches and wires), merge the two onboard computers to reduce energy consumption, and use wind generators to create more power. There are even talks of adding a sled to carry additional solar panels.

GROVER wasn’t the only robot seeing the sights in Greenland at the time of testing. Another smaller, non-autonomous robot called CoolRobot built by Dartmouth College was also being put through its paces. Marshall thinks CoolRobot and other polar rovers being developed by different science could one day be working together.

“One thing I can imagine is having a big robot like GROVER with several smaller ones that can move radially outwards to increase the swath GROVER would cover,” Marshall said. “Also, we’ve been thinking about bringing back smaller platforms to a larger one to recharge.”


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Write by: RC - Tuesday, July 9, 2013

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