In Greenland and Antarctic Tests, Yeti Helps Conquer Some “Abominable” Polar Hazards

National Science Foundation

March 1, 2013

A century after Western explorers first crossed the dangerous landscapes of the Arctic and Antarctic, researchers funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) have successfully deployed a self-guided robot that uses ground-penetrating radar to map deadly crevasses hidden in ice-covered terrains.

Deployment of the robot—dubbed Yeti—could make Arctic and Antarctic explorations safer by revealing unseen fissures buried beneath ice and snow that could potentially claim human lives and expensive equipment.

Yeti in Antarctica
Yeti in Antarctica

Researchers say Yeti opens the door to making polar travel safer for crews that supply remote scientific research stations. Attempts have been made by researchers in the polar regions to use robots for tasks such as searching for meteorites in Antarctica. However, researchers who have worked with Yeti say it is probably the first robot to successfully deploy in the field that is able to identify hazards lurking under the thin cover of snow.

These findings are based on deployments of Yeti in Greenland's Inland Traverse, an over-ice supply train from Thule in the north of Greenland to NSF's Summit Station on the ice cap, and in NSF's South Pole Traverse, a 1,031-mile, over-ice trek from McMurdo Station in Antarctica to the South Pole.

A team of researchers from the U.S. Army's Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) and Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth, along with a student at Stanford University's neuroscience program, recently published their findings in the Journal of Field Robotics.

"Polar exploration is not unlike space missions; we put people into the field where it is expensive and it is dangerous to do science," said CRREL's James Lever.

Using Yeti—and potential follow-on devices that Lever expects may be developed in the future by improving on the Yeti template--has value not only in reducing some of the danger to human beings working in polar environments. Deploying Yeti and machines like it also plays to the strength of robots, which are well suited for learning and performing repetitive tasks more efficiently than humans.

Lever added that robots like Yeti not only improve safety; they also have the potential to reduce the costs of logistical support of science in the remote polar regions and extend the capabilities of researchers.

Yeti was developed with funding from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Students of Lever and Laura Ray, at Dartmouth, also a principal investigator on the Yeti project and a co-author of the paper, designed and created a predecessor to Yeti—called Cool Robot—that was funded by NSF's Division of Polar Programs to conduct work in Antarctica.

Under a separate NSF grant, researchers plan to deploy Cool Robot this summer to circumnavigate NSF's Summit Station on the Greenland ice sheet, taking atmospheric samples as it goes. The solar-powered, four-wheel-drive Cool Robot led to Yeti's success, while helping the researchers meet NSF's goal of integrating research and education.

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