Science

Monster Machines: NASA's Student-Designed Arctic Explorer Survives Its First Tundra Test

After a five-month expedition to the wilds of Greenland, the GROVER (Greenland Rover and/or Goddard Remotely Operated Vehicle for Exploration and Research) has returned, intact and toting some valuable climate data. Not bad for an ROV developed by engineering students.

Sure the GROVER only travelled a total of 30km during its five-week shakedown run, but the trek has given researchers valuable insights into future design improvements as well as valuable data regarding 2012′s massive ice sheet melt-off. For one, the GROVER did not run 24/7 under the never-setting arctic sun as it was originally meant to. The region’s extreme conditions forced the research team to dial back its operating limit to just 12 hours per charge. What’s more, Greenland’s varied icy terrain played havoc with GROVER’s treads, demanding repeated adjustments to the system’s traction control, power and speed (all 1.93km/h of it) to prevent it from miring in the tundra.

“This is very common the first time you take an instrument into an environment like Greenland,” Hans-Peter Marshall, the project’s science advisor, said in a press statement. “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.”

Mobility issues aside, the GROVER did collect valuable data on Greenland’s ice sheet formation. Specifically, the rover used its radar array to successfully detect a newly formed layer of ice created from a massive summer meltoff last year and measure its thickness. Now that the GROVER is safely back at base camp, NASA researchers have already begun upgrades. Future iterations are expeted to run longer, stronger, and maybe even harbor packs of smaller drones. “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.” Soon, the barren northern wastes could be populated by slow-crawling, radar-blasting scientific motherships. [TG Daily]