The trek across the Antarctic ice sheet is a long, hazardous, and costly journey for scientific researchers working in the world’s most remote location. Astronomers, geologists, and biologists regularly spend much of their field season and over 70% of their hard-earned grant money on logistical support – an intricate choreography of supply planes, snowmobiles, and tractors meant to move gear to where it needs to be.
One of the most significant time sinks is the crevasse-detection process, which involves a massive snowcat tractor treading its way slowly across the ice. As Laura Ray, a Professor of Engineering at Dartmouth College, describes it, a 6-meter long pole extends from the front of the vehicle with a ground penetrating radar (GPR) instrument at its end. As the driver inches forward, the system surveys the subsurface like a metal detector-wielding beachcomber tentatively looking for buried treasure. Sitting nearby is a technician, eyes glued to a screen that displays the GPR data in real time. Inch by inch, data streams across the monitor: if the look-out thinks it indicates a crevasse, she has two seconds to press an emergency stop button. Making the right choice could be the difference between smooth passage and a costly, time-consuming, dangerous crash.
It’s an important and likely life-saving program – one born from frightening mishaps – but it soaks up a lot of time. “It’s tedious and tiring,” says Ray, “and there are few people that do it well.”
Extreme conditions, long hours, and tedium: just the job for a robot. Ray and her colleagues have spent years developing such a tool, and the latest edition of the Yeti autonomous vehicle offers important financial and scientific benefits.