Engineers are testing a unique autonomous four-wheeled vehicle called Yeti that they hope will soon be cruising the polar regions of the planet bringing back climate, ice and atmospheric data.
While rovers are exploring the undersea world, and have been sent to Mars, it's one of the first times engineers have figured out how to make one work in subfreezing temperatures at the Earth's polar zone in the frozen wastelands of Greenland.
"If successful, the scientists will get to use these machines to get to places they can't get to," said Laura Ray, professor of engineering at Dartmouth University and principal investigator on the Yeti project. "You could do a grid survey several times and create much better models of the dynamics of melting under ice sheets."
Yeti has a special composite skin, electric motor and standard ATV tires. Engineers said they're trying to keep the cost of the basic vehicle down as they test increasingly complex pieces of equipment to go on board.
This month, teams from Dartmouth and the U.S. Army's Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory Center will be running Yeti around Summit Camp, Greenland, which is the scientific base for dozens of scientific projects and is located in the middle of the thick Greenland ice cap.
Scientists say that they need more data about Greenland's climate as it becomes clear that rapid warming is under way.
During its shakedown cruise, Yeti will be sampling the air to figure out the chemical footprint of the base. Yeti is autonomous and will be following a grid programmed to its onboard GPS unit.
One of the other challenges is figuring out how to run robots like Yeti over the rugged icy terrain of Greenland and Antarctica, according to James Lever, a mechanical engineer at the Army lab in Hanover, N.H.
"The robot is intended to drive efficiently over snow surfaces, which is a hard job," Lever said.
In addition to crunchy, slippery and bumpy surface ice, the polar regions are filled with hidden crevasses which can extend hundreds of feet below the surface. Engineers are testing special ground-penetrating radar that would give Yeti and its progeny a visual map of dangers that lie ahead and allow it to navigate around them.
Yeti is a forerunner for a solar-powered rover called "Cool Robot" which will be going through field trials next year. The ultimate goal is to engineer a sturdy rover that can spend a long time on the ice and still be able to generate power through solar cells to power its motor, communications devices and the onboard instruments.
"Cool Robot" is being designed with special solar panels that capture both direct and reflected sunlight and turn it into power.
Lever foresees a time when fleets of wheeled robots chug across the polar regions, picking up data in inhospitable places where human scientists still dare not tread.
"It's very expensive to put people in Greenland or Antarctica," Lever said. "You have to maintain their health and well-being and they are limited in time and the extent of their range. We are thinking the robot is the way to go."