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Snow-going robots to assist in climate change research

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May 28, 2008

A toy that's not a toy - the SnoMote

A toy that's not a toy - the SnoMote

May 28, 2008 Scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Pennsylvania State University are developing a hardy breed of autonomous robots designed to collect critical on-site data that will aid in the understanding of how climate change is effecting the world's ice sheets and therefore enable the creation of better climate models.

Called SnoMotes, the prototype is a 2-foot-long, 1-foot-wide child's snowmobile (chosen because they are inexpensive, expendable and ready made for abuse) to which a range of data-collection and navigation equipment has been added.

Using cameras and sensors to navigate their environment, the SnoMotes will be able to work as an autonomous team without the use of remote control. Once released from a selected base camp, the robots will collaborate to ensure that the selected research area is well covered and can venture into areas that are unsafe for humans. Two navigation systems are being developed. The first enables the robots “bid” on a desired location based on their proximity to the location and taking into consideration how well their instruments are working. The second involves a the use of a mathematical "net" that can be applied to particular research areas.

Three prototypes have so far been created to prove mobility (which is a big challenge in white-out conditions) and communications capabilities, with a full range of sensors to be added at a later date. There are also plans for larger rovers.

“In order to say with certainty how climate change affects the world’s ice, scientists need accurate data points to validate their climate models,” said Ayanna Howard, lead on the project and an associate professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Georgia Tech. “Our goal was to create rovers that could gather more accurate data to help scientists create better climate models. It’s definitely science-driven robotics.”

Howard’s team is working in conjunction with with Magnus Egerstedt, an associate professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Derrick Lampkin, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography at Penn State who studies ice sheets and how changes in climate contribute to changes in these large ice masses. Lampkin’s team will be creating a sensor package for later versions of Howard’s rovers.

“The changing mass of Greenland and Antarctica represents the largest unknown in predictions of global sea-level rise over the coming decades. Given the substantial impact these structures can have on future sea levels, improved monitoring of the ice sheet mass balance is of vital concern,” Lampkin said. “We’re developing a scale-adaptable, autonomous, mobile climate monitoring network capable of capturing a range of vital meteorological measurements that will be employed to augment the existing network and capture multi-scale processes under-sampled by current, stationary systems.”

Howard unveiled the SnoMotes at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in Pasadena on May 23. The SnoMotes will also be part of an exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry in June. The research was funded by a grant from NASA’s Advanced Information Systems Technology (AIST) Program.

Via Georgia Institute of Technology.

About the Author
Noel McKeegan After a misspent youth at law school, Noel began to dabble in tech research, writing and things with wheels that go fast. This bus dropped him at the door of a freshly sprouted Gizmag.com in 2002. He has been Gizmag's Editor-in-Chief since 2007.   All articles by Noel McKeegan
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