By Jason Bittel
You’re traveling more than 1,000 miles across the barren snowscape of Antarctica. Along the way, many crevasses lie hidden between you and your quest to resupply the hungry scientists at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. The good news is you can detect these deathtraps with a radar arm. The bad news is it only gives you approximately four seconds of warning before you and your tracked vehicle, which weighs several tons, plummet to a dark and silent tomb. If only there were a robot that could map crevasses ahead of such expeditions. Preferably one with an adorable yet mildly ferocious name.
Meet the Yeti. This four-wheel-drive rover drags a ground-penetrating radar arm capable of logging information that tells scientists what lies — or more importantly, doesn’t lie — below. At just 180 pounds, the bot crosses snow-covered crevasses like it ain’t no thing. (Since people don’t wander around on foot down there, the real danger is the heavy tracked vehicles breaking through the snow bridges.) It functions at temperatures around minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit. In short, Yeti is an awesome little minion redrawing the boundaries of hazard georeferencing.
Most of us don’t have to think about such things, but doing science on the bottom of the world is a tricky endeavor. In addition to dangerous weather conditions and 30-foot-wide trapdoors in the ice, the logistics of assembling personnel, equipment and supplies at the South Pole is nothing short of extraordinary.
“The focus of this effort was to support the actual operations and logistics side of the Polar Program,” James Lever, mechanical engineer and specialist in over-snow mobility for the U.S. Army’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, told me. Lever and his co-principal investigator professor Laura Ray published their findings this month in the Journal of Field Robotics. “Whether you have researchers in Antarctica or Greenland, you have to keep people safe and comfortable. You’re a long way from everything else and so it’s expensive to do science there.”