Scientists Build and Test Autonomous Robotic Rover to Explore the Arctic

GROVER on June 3, 2013 while being controlled from Idaho. After a month of testing and adapting the electronics for the cold weather, the rover was ready for long-distance control via satellite link. All photos: courtesy NASA NASA’s rover technology isn’t just for space exploration anymore.

Scientists are deploying the rover concept and technology to collect more earthly data in the Arctic. The Goddard Remotely Operated Vehicle for Exploration and Research, or GROVER, is an autonomous robot that can travel over long distances and harsh conditions to collect data for scientists.

Earlier this GROVER touched down at Greenland’s Summit Station as Mark Robertson and Gabriel Trisca, graduate students at Boise State University, tested the robot’s accuracy, ability to be controlled remotely and data collection capabilities. Robertson and Trisca helped design, program and modify GROVER for terrestrial use in the Arctic.

GROVER on the move during a sustained test of the power consumption on June 2, 2013. The rover was sent a list of coordinates in a big circle outside of Summit and it went around the loop three times, hitting all of the waypoints.

“GROVER, as an idea, began as a way to help scientists with tasks that don't require much human intervention, span over vast geographical areas and are risky,” Trisca said.

Not Your Ordinary Robot 

At nearly six feet tall and weighing 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 two large solar panels arranged in an inverted v-shape. In between the two snow mobile tracks is a control box that contains all the computers that collect and transmit data.

“GROVER is an autonomous vehicle that can navigate to GPS coordinates and report back to base via satellite from any location in the world while it collects scientific information,” Trisca said. “It’s a very versatile scientific platform that we think will change the way science is carried [out] in the polar regions and beyond.”

Student-designed Robotics

Gabriel Trisca (left) and Mark Robertson, graduate students at Boise State University, repair connectors on the motor controller for GROVER. June 1, 2013.

The first GROVER prototype was designed in 2010 and 2011 by teams of interns participating in a summer engineering boot camp at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. NASA supported further testing and refinement in Boise.

The interns had a list of specifications and requirements, like being able to withstand subzero temperatures. It also needed to be light enough to be moved forward by electric motors, and its sensors needed to perform in the cold. Trisca created the software that enables the robot to navigate autonomously and communicate via radio or satellite.

Summit Station Tests

From May 6 to June 8, 2013, the GROVER team was in Summit Station to test the robot’s capabilities and its ability to withstand Arctic weather conditions. Working conditions included winds of up to 23mph and frigid temperatures that sank to nearly -30F.

Summit Station is funded and managed by the U.S. National Science Foundation in cooperation with the Government of Greenland.

Testing the control features was a key part of the exercises at Summit Station. “There are two ways GROVER can be controlled. One is by wireless connection. It can also be controlled via satellite. We tested both and demonstrated that they worked,” Robertson said.

“Our tests were a massive success!” Robertson said. “We worked through the problems we encountered, and demonstrated that GROVER works.”

Data Collection Capabilities

Mark Robertson, a graduate student at Boise State University, checks the depth of the snow pack just after GROVER passes. The pole has graduated markings along its length. Mark is checking the depth of the ice layer formed after the big melt of summer 2012.

Under its current configuration, GROVER is equipped with radar technology the team can use to measure snow accumulation on the ice sheet over time. This year’s tests showed that the radar system mounted to GROVER could successfully transmit real-time data.

“Having an autonomous vehicle is important because it’s very expensive, a little dangerous, and very difficult to have people out in the Arctic for long stretches of time. Once we get GROVER up and running, it could be traversing the ice sheet collecting radar data the whole summer—as long at the sun is out [to power the batteries driving the motor],” Robertson said. “And it would certainly collect a lot more data that someone on a snowmobile.”

Lessons Learned  

Although the trial runs earlier this year were a success, not everything was smooth roving.

The GROVER team is still processing the data from the Summit Station tests, and has already identified one area they want to improve: maximizing battery power so GROVER can cover more ground in the future.

A Powerful Tool for Arctic Science and More

Back in Boise, Robertson and Trisca are taking what they learned at Summit Station and moving forward. In the future they hope to conduct more studies in Greenland and possibly expand to Antarctica. The success of the GROVER tests is opening the doors to other applications outside the earth’s polar regions.

“At Boise State there are other people interested in using the idea, the platform for seismic surveys,” Robertson said. “You could really do anything with GROVER—even put it on a ship—and that’s the beauty.”  —Alicia Clarke

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