GROVER 2.0—No Ordinary Polar Robot


Two members of the GROVER team, Gabriel Trisca and Hans-Peter Marshall, during the most recent GROVER tests this winter in Colorado. Photo: Jesse Dean In 2013, Field Notes introduced you to the Goddard Remotely Operated Vehicle for Exploration and Research, or GROVER, an autonomous robot designed for polar exploration and data collection.

Collecting data in the Arctic and Antarctic can be dangerous, expensive and logistically challenging. GROVER was built to help scientists collect data remotely no matter what conditions the polar environment has in store for it.

GROVER allows the Cryosphere Geophysics and Remote Sensing group at Boise State University to use geophysics and remote sensing techniques to measure snow and ice properties on ice sheets. GROVER currently uses microwave radars to measure snow accumulation rates over the past 50 years, providing ground calibration/validation data for models and satellite observations. It can navigate to GPS coordinates and report back to a research base located anywhere in the world via satellite. The GROVER platform has great potential for hosting a wide range of sensors for monitoring the polar regions autonomously.

At nearly six feet tall and weighing more than 800 pounds, GROVER is a rugged data-collecting machine. The frame is mounted on two snow mobile tracks that hold batteries and motors powered by large solar panels. In between the two snowmobile tracks is a control box that contains all the electrical components that power the robot and collect and transmit data, from radar and other sensors, back to the operators.

When we last spoke with Gabriel Trisca—GROVER’s lead designer and a graduate student at Boise State University—the team had just returned from a first round of field tests at Greenland’s Summit Station.

Two years later, GROVER is now smarter, more energy efficient, and can cover more ground, thanks to enhancements and modifications made by Trisca and the rest of the team, which includes faculty and students from Boise State University and Arizona State University. A group at Arizona State University led by the late Alberto Behar focused on the mechanical improvements, while researchers at Boise State University further improved software, communications, and integration of the radar.

Field Notes recently checked in with Trisca to learn more about the improvements to GROVER.

Field Notes (FN): What are some lessons the GROVER team learned from the 2013 field tests in Greenland?

Gabriel Trisca (GT): We learned many valuable lessons from the field tests in Greenland. We found out that certain things we tested in the lab, for instance the electronic components, really didn’t work well in the field due to the stresses and cold temperatures. With all these lessons we decided to redesign GROVER, especially its electronic box, to make it more suitable for the field.

When we went to Greenland, we had spares of pretty much all the electronic parts. But, as you can imagine, if GROVER had a problem a couple miles from camp we would have to either take the component out and fix it in the field or take the electronic box back to camp and fix the problem there. We’d then return and re-install it in GROVER. That was extremely time consuming.

FN: It sounds like there was room for improvement where the electronic components were concerned. What will you do differently?  

GT: Yes. We learned that we needed to bring a full replacement electronic box with us in the field. This way, if something breaks in the field we won’t need to swap out individual electronic components; we could swap out everything. Essentially, we would disconnect the solar panels and motors, install the new electronic box, and then reconnect everything.

We spent a lot of time in late 2013 developing the specifications for these new electronic boxes. We also changed their physical design to make them easier for one person to remove and replace. We worked with a robotics team at Arizona State University to build and test these new electronic boxes.

GROVER’s newly reconfigured electronic box. The new design makes repairs in the field easier and faster. Photo: Rachel White

FN: What are some of GROVER’s other new capabilities?

GT: When we tested the new electronic boxes in Arizona, we used that as an opportunity to make modifications to GROVER’s chassis, or frame, and to install larger solar panels.

The larger solar panels mean that for 10 percent more weight, we get 40 percent more solar power. We think GROVER should be able to travel 50 km (about 30 miles) in a single day now. Before, we needed to stop and recharge GROVER and it could only cover 10-12 km (about 6-7 miles) in a day.

We are also using a more modern computer, which requires less power, and added new functionalities that help us better manage the power generated by the solar panels. We are being smarter about how we utilize the additional power—that’s probably the biggest difference.

GROVER now has long-range 900MHz radio communications, in addition to the local wireless and remote satellite modem capabilities it had in 2013. The radar data acquisition has been moved from a separate Windows-based computer to linux, allowing the main control computer to operate the radar and removing the need for two high end CPUs.

The new solar panels give GROVER 40 percent more power and enable the robot to travel a much greater distance on a single charge. Photo: Rachel White

FN: What’s next for GROVER?

GT: The plan is to take GROVER back to the Arctic in summer 2016. This summer, we’ll do some more testing locally to determine if more modifications are needed. We hope to have all the updated software ready by the end of 2015, and will have everything ready to ship in early 2016 for the summer field season in the Arctic.

It’s all very exciting! We are thrilled especially by some of the lessons we learned the first time around. In 2013, we were unsure of what to expect and faced several challenges. This second time around, we know more of what to expect. Of course there will be new challenges, but our experiences in 2013 have really prepared us and put us ahead.

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