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Robotic mini-snowmobiles ply the Arctic

July 18, 2008
Courtesy NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
and World Science staff

Three snow­mo­biles zipped over a tricky ter­rain in Alas­ka’s out­back last June, but they were no or­di­nary recrea­t­ional ve­hi­cles. They were toy-size ro­bots called SnoMotes—the first pro­to­type net­work of their kind en­vi­sioned to rove treach­er­ous po­lar ar­eas. Their job is to take bet­ter mea­sure­ments to help sci­en­tists un­der­stand the rap­id melt­ing of ice in those re­gions, which re­search­ers gen­er­ally blame on glob­al warm­ing.

Proj­ect lead Ayanna How­ard, a Geor­gia Tech en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor, poses with a Sno­Mote robot she co-de­signed in prep­a­ra­tion for a field test in June  in Alas­ka. (Cred­it: Uni­ver­si­ty of Alas­ka South­east/Alex Bo­go­le­pov)


En­gi­neer Ayanna How­ard of the Geor­gia In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy worked with Penn­syl­va­nia State Uni­ver­s­ity sci­en­tists to cre­ate the de­vices. They’re de­signed to move over crack­ing and shift­ing ice in pur­suit of pres­sure, tem­per­a­ture, and hu­mid­ity mea­sure­ments to help im­prove cli­mate mod­els.

The cur­rent SnoMotes, about two feet (60 cm) long and half as wide, are pro­to­types of what How­ard said will be full-scale de­vices about twice the size. 

To save mon­ey, the pro­to­types were made from dis­con­tin­ued re­mote-con­trolled, snow­mo­bile-shaped plas­tic toys. These were re­fitted with sen­sors, mi­cro­pro­ces­sors, and cam­eras, build­ing on work Ho­ward did as a form­er mem­ber of NASA’s Mars tech­nol­o­gy pro­gram team. There she had de­signed an au­ton­o­mous Mars ro­ver called Smart­Nav.

Si­m­i­lar de­vices might be use­ful on Earth to “ad­vance what we know about how changes in cli­mate af­fect ice sheets and glaciers,” said How­ard, lead re­search­er on the NASA-funded SnoMotes proj­ect.

In June, How­ard and colleagues from the Uni­ver­s­ity of Alas­ka South­east com­plet­ed tests of the SnoMotes on the Menden­hall Glac­i­er in Ju­neau, Alas­ka. To as­sess the ro­bots’ abil­ity to nav­i­gate and com­mu­ni­cate, the re­search­ers re­leased three SnoMotes on­to a land­scape with ice, deep snow, crevices and “sun cups,” rough patches that de­vel­op when the sun par­tially melts icy ar­eas. 

The machines moved “with­out dif­fi­cul­ty and we were able to com­mu­ni­cate with them… with­out any noticea­ble er­rors,” said How­ard.

“This is the third ren­di­tion of the ro­bot,” she added. “In the de­vel­opment stage, I con­sid­ered the na­ture of ice and snow and how peo­ple ac­tu­ally walk on both. The first ver­sion of the ro­bot had legs. We then shifted to a hy­brid leg-and-wheel de­sign that al­lowed the wheels to ma­neu­ver out of snow patches if the legs be­came stuck. We fi­nally thought about the oth­er ways in which sci­en­tists trav­el on the icy Arc­tic ter­rain, and de­cid­ed to use a snow­mo­bile-type de­sign to solve the ma­neu­verabil­ity prob­lems.” 

How­ard and col­leagues hope to cre­ate a cheap fi­nal mod­el of the Sno­Motes that will be scala­ble in­to a net­work usea­ble by many re­search­ers, with 30 to 40 ro­bots lo­cat­ed across the Arc­tic. Dur­ing fu­ture tests, How­ard plans to as­sess wheth­er many Sno­Motes can use ad­vanced ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence skills and en­hanced mo­bil­ity to nav­i­gate si­mul­ta­ne­ous­ly, dis­tin­guish var­y­ing types of ter­rain and com­mu­ni­cate with each oth­er.


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Three snowmobiles zipped over a tricky terrain in Alaska’s outback last June, but they were no ordinary recreational vehicles. They were toy-size robots called SnoMotes—the first prototype network of their kind envisioned to rove treacherous polar areas. Their job is to take better measurements to help scientists understand the rapid melting of ice in those regions, which researchers generally blame on global warming. Engineer Ayanna Howard of the Georgia Institute of Technology worked with Pennsylvania State University scientists to create the devices. They’re designed to move over cracking and shifting ice in pursuit of pressure, temperature, and humidity measurements to help improve climate models. The current SnoMotes, about two feet (60 cm) long and half as wide, are prototypes of what Howard said will be full-scale devices about twice the size. To save money, the prototypes were made from discontinued remote-controlled plastic snowmobile-shaped toys. Her team adapted these with sensors, microprocessors, and cameras—building on innovations she developed as a former member of NASA’s Mars technology program team, designing an autonomous Mars rover called SmartNav. Similar devices might be useful on Earth to “advance what we know about how changes in climate affect ice sheets and glaciers,” said Howard, lead researcher on the NASA-funded SnoMotes project. In June, Howard and researchers from the University of Alaska Southeast completed tests of the SnoMotes on the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska. To assess the robots’ ability to navigate and communicate, the researchers released three SnoMotes onto a landscape with ice, deep snow, crevices and “sun cups,” rough patches that develop when the sun partially melts icy areas. The machines moved “without difficulty and we were able to communicate with them… without any noticeable errors,” said Howard. “This is the third rendition of the robot,” she added. “In the development stage, I considered the nature of ice and snow and how people actually walk on both. The first version of the robot had legs. We then shifted to a hybrid leg and wheel design that allowed the wheels to maneuver out of snow patches if the legs became stuck. We finally thought about the other ways in which scientists travel on the icy Arctic terrain, and decided to use a snowmobile-type design to solve the maneuverability problems.” Howard and colleagues hope to create a cheap final model of the SnoMotes that will be scalable into a network useable by many researchers, with 30 to 40 robots located across the Arctic. During future tests, Howard plans to assess whether multiple SnoMotes can use advanced artificial intelligence skills and enhanced mobility to navigate simultaneously, distinguish varying types of terrain and communicate with one another.