Nasa robots survey the Arctic

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Nasa has developed "toy like" autonomous robots to carry out scientific surveys of treacherous areas of the Arctic and Antarctic.

The SnoMotes robots are designed to operate in terrain deemed too dangerous for scientists.

The devices can record data including barometric pressure, temperature and relative humidity that will help scientists improve climate models.

Ayanna Howard, an associate professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, worked with scientists at Pennsylvania State University in State College to create the devices.

Howard is a former member of Nasa's Mars technology programme team and developed the SmartNav autonomous next-generation Mars rover.

"After working with robots for the Mars technology programme, I thought a similar type of rover could be used to collect multiple science measurements on this planet," she said.

"My research colleagues at Penn State agreed that we could possibly advance what we know about how changes in climate affect ice sheets and glaciers using robots to trek landscapes with volatile cracking or shifting ice where scientists have difficulty going to gather important measurements."

Howard added that the robots can also fill gaps in the existing network of satellites and weather station sensors that occurs due to immobility of the grounded station sensors or remote location and limited resolution of the satellites.

According to Howard, the robots can act as "mobile weather stations".

In June, Howard and researchers from the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau completed the first tests of the SnoMotes' capabilities on the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau.

Howard and others released three SnoMotes into a multi-textured environment on the glacier that featured ice, deep snow, crevices and "sun cups", rough patches that develop when the Sun partially melts icy areas.

"Our analysis of the data from the field test will not be complete until this fall, but the robots did well spanning the terrain without difficulty and we were able to communicate with them from the 'base camp' without any noticeable errors," she said.

The current SnoMotes are a prototype of what Howard expects will be a full-scale system about twice the size of the current robots that are two feet long and one foot wide.
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