NASA’s latest robotic invention is almost ready to roll after passing its first polar test in Greenland. The robot, known as GROVER (Greenland Rover and Goddard Remotely Operated Vehicle for Exploration and Research), defied 30 mph wind gusts and temperatures down to negative 22 F to prove that it can operate on its own in Earth’s harshest environments. Originally designed by teams of students at an engineering boot camp, GROVER was built to carry a radar that can penetrate through the ground to analyze layers of snow and ice.
GROVER was first tested on a beach in Maryland and in snow in Idaho, but its journey on Greenland was its first polar experience. One of the main goals of the test was to affirm that the rover could execute commands from afar over an Iridium satellite connection. GROVER provied itself to be fully autonomous, GPS-guided and satellite-linked.
During its five weeks in Greenland, GROVER collected radar data over 18 miles. The testing also showed that the rover was capable of transmitting information in real time about its onboard systems. Its solar-charged batteries allow it to operate for up to 12 hours before needing a recharge. Because of the high wind and ice and snow conditions on the poles, humans can only cover so much ground at any given time. GROVER, however, will present new possibilities for polar exploration.
The extreme cold, however, still provided challenges for the robot, pushing its electronics, battery consumption and mobility to the limit. But researchers were not discouraged.
“This is very common the first time you take an instrument into an environment like Greenland,” said Hans-Peter Marshall, a geoscientist at Boise State University and science adviser on the project. “It’s always more challenging than you thought it was going to be: Batteries don’t recharge as fast and they don’t last as long, and it takes computers and instrumentation longer to boot.”
GROVER also had some problems with the uneven icy terrain of Greenland. Scientists repeatedly tinkered with its speed and power so that it would not get stuck in the snow and ice.
To overcome these issues, possible changes to GROVER include replacing some components that don’t manipulate well in the cold, as well as merging the two onboard computers to reduce battery consumption. Other possible solutions include using wind generators or adding a sled with more solar panels.
“One thing I can imagine is having a big robot like GROVER with several smaller ones that can move radially outwards to increase the swath GROVER would cover,” Marshall said. “Also, we’ve been thinking about bringing back smaller platforms to a larger one to recharge.” Yes, that’s right — an army of polar robots.