NASA Funds Toy Snowmobile Project at Georgia Tech to Monitor Climate Change Affecting Ice Shelves

The “SnoMote Remote Controlled Weather Station”

At first, I though this must be a joke. But, it is not. They call it “an autonomous robot designed by Georgia Tech to gather scientific data in ice environments.” It started life as the Ski-Doo® RC Snowmobile which is 28″ long, and runs for 30 minutes on a charge.

But in a press release from Georgia Tech on May 27th, seen below, it is clear that this is real, true, fully federally funded NASA science project. You can buy one here from Hammacher Schlemmer for $79.95 Ooops, sold out, looks like Georgia Tech bought them out.

My question is, when one of these gets stuck in a crack or crevasse, or simply runs out of power prematurely, do they just leave it there for the polar bears to play with or do they send the lowliest science intern out on the ice to fetch it back, lest it remain to pollute the sea and/or sea ice with it’s Lead or Nickel Cadmium rechargeable batteries?

UAV’s have already been used in the arctic.


Robots go where scientists fear to tread



SnoMote, an autonomous robot designed by Georgia Tech to gather scientific data in ice environments.

Click here for more information.


ATLANTA ( May 27, 2008 ) — Scientists are diligently working to understand how and why the world’s ice shelves are melting. While most of the data they need (temperatures, wind speed, humidity, radiation) can be obtained by satellite, it isn’t as accurate as good old-fashioned, on-site measurement and static ground-based weather stations don’t allow scientists to collect info from as many locations as they’d like.

And unfortunately, the locations in question are volatile ice sheets, possibly cracking, shifting and filling with water — not exactly a safe environment for scientists.

To help scientists collect the more detailed data they need without risking scientists’ safety, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, working with Pennsylvania State University, have created specially designed robots called SnoMotes to traverse these potentially dangerous ice environments. The SnoMotes work as a team, autonomously collaborating among themselves to cover all the necessary ground to gather assigned scientific measurements. Data gathered by the Snomotes could give scientists a better understanding of the important dynamics that influence the stability of ice sheets.



Ayanna Howard, an associate professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Georgia Tech, with a SnoMote, a robot designed to gather scientific data in ice environments.

Click here for more information.


“In order to say with certainty how climate change affects the world’s ice, scientists need accurate data points to validate their climate models,” said Ayanna Howard, lead on the project and an associate professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Georgia Tech. “Our goal was to create rovers that could gather more accurate data to help scientists create better climate models. It’s definitely science-driven robotics.”

Howard unveiled the SnoMotes at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in Pasadena on May 23. The SnoMotes will also be part of an exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry in June. The research was funded by a grant from NASA’s Advanced Information Systems Technology (AIST) Program.

Howard, who previously worked with rovers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is working with Magnus Egerstedt, an associate professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Derrick Lampkin, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography at Penn State who studies ice sheets and how changes in climate contribute to changes in these large ice masses. Lampkin currently takes ice sheet measurements with satellite data and ground-based weather stations, but would prefer to use the more accurate data possible with the simultaneous ground measurements that efficient rovers can provide.

“The changing mass of Greenland and Antarctica represents the largest unknown in predictions of global sea-level rise over the coming decades. Given the substantial impact these structures can have on future sea levels, improved monitoring of the ice sheet mass balance is of vital concern,” Lampkin said. “We’re developing a scale-adaptable, autonomous, mobile climate monitoring network capable of capturing a range of vital meteorological measurements that will be employed to augment the existing network and capture multi-scale processes under-sampled by current, stationary systems.”



Ayanna Howard, an associate professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Georgia Tech, with a SnoMote, a robot designed to gather scientific data in ice environments.

Click here for more information.


The SnoMotes are autonomous robots and are not remote-controlled. They use cameras and sensors to navigate their environment. Though current prototype models don’t include a full range of sensors, the robots will eventually be equipped with all the sensors and instruments needed to take measurements specified by the scientist.

While Howard’s team works on versatile robots with the mobility and Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) skills to complete missions, Lampkin’s team will be creating a sensor package for later versions of Howard’s rovers.

Here’s how the SnoMotes will work when they’re ready for their glacial missions: The scientist will select a location for investigation and decide on a safe “base camp” from which to release the SnoMotes. The SnoMotes will then be programmed with their assigned coverage area and requested measurements. The researcher will monitor the SnoMotes’ progress and even reassign locations and data collection remotely from the camp as necessary.

When Howard’s research team first set out to build a rover designed to capture environmental data from the field, it took a few tries to come up with an effectively hearty design. The group’s first rover was delicate and ineffective. But after an initial failure, they decided to move on to something designed for consistent abuse — a toy. Instead of building yet another expensive prototype, Howard instead opted to start with a sturdy kit snowmobile, already primed for snow conditions and designed for heavy use by a child.

Howard’s group then installed a camera and all necessary computing and sensor equipment inside the 2-foot-long, 1-foot-wide snowmobile. The result was a sturdy but inexpensive rover.

By using existing kits and adding a few extras like sensors, circuits, A.I. and a camera, the team was able to create an expendable rover that wouldn’t break a research team’s bank if it were lost during an experiment, Howard said. Similar rovers under development at other universities are much more expensive, and the cost of sending several units to canvas an area would likely be cost-prohibitive for most researchers, she added.

The first phase of the project is focused primarily on testing the mobility and communications capabilities of the SnoMote rovers. Later versions of the rovers will include a more developed sensor package and larger rovers.

The team has created three working SnoMote models so far, but as many SnoMotes as necessary can work together on a mission, Howard said.

The SnoMote represents two key innovations in rovers: a new method of location and work allocation communication between robots and maneuvering in ice conditions.

Once placed on site, the robots place themselves at strategic locations to make sure all the assigned ground is covered. Howard and her team are testing two different methods that allow the robots to decide amongst themselves which positions they will take to get all the necessary measurements.

The first is an “auction” system that lets the robots “bid” on a desired location, based on their proximity to the location (as they move) and how well their instruments are working or whether they have the necessary instrument (one may have a damaged wind sensor or another may have low battery power).

The second method is more mathematical, fixing the robots to certain positions in a net of sorts that is then stretched to fit the targeted location. Magnus Egerstedt is working with Howard on this work allocation method.

In addition to location assignments, another key innovation of the SnoMote is its ability to find its way in snow conditions. While most rovers can use rocks or other landmarks to guide their movement, snow conditions present an added challenge by restricting topography and color (everything is white) from its guidance systems.

For snow conditions, one of Howard’s students discovered that the lines formed by snow banks could serve as markers to help the SnoMote track distance traveled, speed and direction. The SnoMote could also navigate via GPS if snow bank visuals aren’t available.

While the SnoMotes are expected to pass their first real field test in Alaska next month, a heartier, more cold-resistant version will be needed for the Antarctic and other well below zero climates, Howard said. These new rovers would include a heater to keep circuitry warm enough to function and sturdy plastic exterior that wouldn’t become brittle in extreme cold.

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35 thoughts on “NASA Funds Toy Snowmobile Project at Georgia Tech to Monitor Climate Change Affecting Ice Shelves

  1. Oh good…put heaters on them. That won’t affect any sensitive measurement devices, will it?
    Here’s a thought exercise. Which part of Antarctica do you think they will be deployed to? The Antarctic Peninsula where the only warming on the continent has been detected, or the main body where temperatures are actually cooling and the ice is getting thicker? Hmmm…

  2. Anthony,
    Where is your imagination? Lead or Nickel Cadmium rechargeable batteries, are you kidding? We need something which will do serious Penguin ass kicking down in Antarctica; it is getting colder there all the time. I propose that plutonium-238 batteries be used which are already being produced (http://www.globalsecurity.org/org/news/2005/050703-space-batteries.htm) by the United Stares. Plutonium has a low critical mass so we would not want the RC Snowmobiles to get too friendly if you get my drift.
    Mike

  3. Dang.
    I have a degree from that school. Due to their descent into the AGW abyss they’ve lost my alumni support.

  4. Bluddy adolescent little wags…. any excuse to go play in th’ snow with RC toys.
    ….. AND get paid for it!
    …. I’m startin’ ta think we’re the stupid ones…. LoL : )

  5. It’s a wonder they an’ NASA don’t get together on this…. Anything that can wander about on the antarctic ice without gettin’ stuck…. can wander about on Mars without gettin’ stuck also……
    Leastways we’d get something of value for the money spent on the whole sorry mess… ; )

  6. Too true niteowl. But you have to ask yourself why do they even bother at all. If the data collected doesn’t confirm the models the AGW (Al Gore Warming) faithful will just ignore it and use some proxy instead much like a study reported earlier in the week where wind shear was used as a proxy for actual temperature data.

  7. Sorry, off subject:
    I get a kick out of the choice of words now used in headlines. Dramatic verbs like “smash”, “crash”, “pound”, etc. are now being used by the MSM to describe ordinary storms hitting an area.
    Alma is just a tropical storm – not even a hurricane. But note how the USA Today uses the word “slam” to descríbe it. Now Tiny Tims are deemed catastrophic enough to be decribed with Cat 3 or higher verbs.
    http://www.usatoday.com/weather/hurricane/2008-05-29-tropical-depression-costa-rica_N.htm?csp=34

  8. Georgians close schools and workplaces on the receipt of an inch or two of slushy snow…and they got the contract for this? Shoulda been Bemidji State!

  9. Yeah there must be and this is a crazy way of spending a liitle money if you can call the millions it cost t make all of these robot snowmobiles.

  10. Here’s a thought exercise. Which part of Antarctica do you think they will be deployed to? The Antarctic Peninsula where the only warming on the continent has been detected, or the main body where temperatures are actually cooling and the ice is getting thicker? Hmmm…

    It’s also the only part of the continent that isn’t in the antarctic…

  11. Oh, neat! I gotta get me one of those. If the downward temp trend continues maybe I can use it on the Potomac this summer or next 😉

  12. 30 minutes? That should allow them to explore an acre or two. Polar bears playing with dead batteries? In Antarctica? Sounds like the taxpayers are funding someone’s Ph.D. research project. “Teams of little robots” has been a hot topic for comp sci/AI folks for quite a while. Other than not working very well, a great idea. (-sarc)
    NASA’s Mars rovers only move when told to and only after careful examination of the terrain.
    Not to worry about plutonium. It doesn’t go boom unless you compress it.
    (Richard Rhodes: The making of the atomic bomb)

  13. Oh, come on folks, at least the “scientists” are going outside (virtually) to see what the real world is doing. Never mind that it is only 30 minutes from habitation (or 15 minutes if you want the thing back), or that it is at ground level and not the requisite 5 feet agl.
    I’ll be taking early bets on whether there will be adjustments applied to “correct” these measurements.

  14. Vav
    Telegraph is more conservative, and sympathetic to USA. You don’t find very many publications like it in Old Europe.

  15. If the thing only runs for 30 minutes, aren’t the “scientists” gonna have to be pretty close to where they set the things down?????

  16. Who writes tickets for littering in Antarctica?
    Considering the amount of time such toys run between recharging, I have my doubts as to the amount of ground these things are actually going to cover before the battery goes dead. It sounds like a “neat” project but I have to wonder how much actual science they are going to be able to perform.
    I would think they could get much more “mileage” out of re-designed “spiders” used for volcano sensing. Simply fly a helicopter around to the desired locations, lower a “spider” with the hook and fly to the next location. When they run out of “juice” you fly out and pick them up again.

  17. Reply to Pierre Gosselin
    as you noted “….choice of words now used in headlines. Dramatic verbs like “smash”, “crash”, “pound”, etc. are now being used by the MSM to describe ordinary storms hitting an area.” reminds me of the text used in the original Batman TV series

  18. The science of global warming aside, this project at Georgia Tech must be running out of federal cash. That is the only way to explain why they released this press release. SnoMote in current form is just a intermediate lab prototype and Tech all but admits this in the release.

  19. Redneck wrote: “Too true niteowl. But you have to ask yourself why do they even bother at all. If the data collected doesn’t confirm the models the AGW (Al Gore Warming) faithful will just ignore it and use some proxy instead much like a study reported earlier in the week where wind shear was used as a proxy for actual temperature data.”
    I missed that one, Redneck! Is there a link available?
    Jack Koenig, Editor
    The Mysterious Climate Project
    http://www.climateclinic.com

  20. Pierre Gosselin wrote: “I get a kick out of the choice of words now used in headlines. Dramatic verbs like “smash”, “crash”, “pound”, etc. are now being used by the MSM to describe ordinary storms hitting an area. ”
    Considering that’s an Associated Press article, there reporting has to be taken with a grain of salt anyway. They are hysterians “par excellence.” Unfortunately, the Pogies fall for it every time.
    Jack Koenig, Editor
    The Mysterious Climate Project
    http://www.climateclinic.com

  21. Vav wrote: “You might be interested in the following link, it seems as if the anti-global warming sentiment is increasing (or more importantly the press are less frightened to print it):”
    Although this is old news, it is curious the Telegraph printed it today. Maybe you’re right, someone may be coming to realize their careers are sinking lower than whale poop.
    Jack Koenig, Editor
    The Mysterious Climate Project
    http://www.climateclinic.com

  22. superDBA wrote: “…or that it is at ground level and not the requisite 5 feet agl.”
    And if they’re using NOAA-approved temperature sensors, how much will they have to beef up the batteries to carry around the requisite concrete pad underneath?

  23. A. Fucaloro (19:41:26)
    What is this for a joke?
    What the he** is that enviro-turncoat Newt up to?
    Donate $10 to him? Are you out of your mind?
    How can Newt plead that we drill for oil, and at the same time go out
    and preach with Gore the end of the world is coming because we’re burning too much fossil fuels? He’s losing it!
    I myself have pledged to no longer have anything to do with McCain or Newt.

  24. Anthony, sorry for this off topic and for my bad english.
    Just to say that according to our national weather service in Portugal, the current month of May is the coldest of the last 15 years in Portugal and the rainy in past 7 years. I think in Spain the situation is similar.
    REPLY: Thank You, The situation is similar in many other places in the Northern Hemisphere.

  25. A. Fucaloro, thank you for posting that. I signed the petition as a Dem, which I still am officially, though I plan to switch to Independent. Never liked Newt’s politics, but he’s right on this. As I understand, they also need to build more refineries. None have been built since 1976.

  26. I hear ya, Pierre, but signing the petition in no way implies or gives support to Gingrich. I don’t know what he’s up to, nor do I care, just that we do need to be finding new sources of domestic oil, and tapping into them. And no, I’m not giving him a cent (not that I could afford to anyway, with sky-high prices for fuel and food, and everything else).

  27. That narrow corridor of heat just mentioned in my previous link just amazes me. It’s like Mother Nature just wants to keep the Germans completely fooled forever.

  28. I bet they got the idea from Michael Crichton’s ‘State of Fear’ – required reading for environmentalists. If I remember right, the heroes were saved from certain death by a chance encounter with a NASA ice-monitoring robot. But that was an SUV-sized robot, which for some reason had an onboard telephone.

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