Robots help pioneer Greenland ice sheet

How can robots help scientists canvas unchartered territory in the world's coldest, most desolate regions? ClimateWire's Lauren Morello explores a National Science Foundation-funded project to perfect Yeti Robot and Cool Robot to collect data on the Greenland ice sheet. Click here to read the special report.


Lauren Morello: Meet Yeti, the newest on Greenland ice sheet. He's never been to school, he doesn't have a degree, but he's fearless, his batteries last for miles and he doesn't mind the cold. He's designed to collect data in places that are too dangerous or too costly for scientists to reach on foot. Jim Lever is a mechanical engineer who helped develop Yeti and its solar powered brother, Cool Robot.

Jim Lever: The main function of a robot to do these kinds of science missions would be to reduce costs and extend the coverage possible for science experiments in polar regions.

Unidentified Speaker: How is she looking? Or he? Is a yeti male or a female?

Jim Lever: When we first looked at this problem, it seemed crazy to try to design a robot to work in such extreme conditions. But the more we looked at it, the more we realized there are some distinct advantages too.

Lauren Morello: Those advantages were apparent last month when two Dartmouth engineering students took Yeti for a test spin on the summit of the Greenland ice sheet. Testers Tom Lane and Suk Joon Lee wanted to see how precisely Yeti followed preprogrammed paths across the ice, guided by its onboard GPS. It also carried scientific instruments to monitor air pollution produced by the diesel generator that powers the research station on the ice sheet summit.

Jim Lever: So, we have perhaps 15 to 20 potential collaborators already lined up based on our earlier work with the Cool Robot. We're hoping, as result of this project, to interest even more people.

Lauren Morello: But even though he is proud of how far Yeti robot has come, Lever doesn't foresee a day when it or machines like it will completely replace human researchers working on Greenland's ice.

Jim Lever: There really is no substitute for the scientists to be directly in the field to see the phenomenon of interest, to make sure the experiment execution goes well, that the experiment plan is well designed and so on. I don't think we'll ever replace scientists in the field. But the intention is to expand their reach.

Lauren Morello: This year's field tests on the Greenland ice sheet are finished. The research team now looks ahead to next summer when they'll perfect Yeti's solar powered sibling, Cool Robot. For ClimateWire, this is Lauren Morello.

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