The Robotics Institute

RI | Seminar | May 13

Robotics Institute Seminar, May 13
Time and Place | Seminar Abstract | Speaker Biography | Speaker Appointments

Field Investigations with Astrobiology Rovers

David Wettergreen

Associate Research Professor

Carnegie Mellon University




Time and Place

Mauldin Auditorium (NSH 1305)
Refreshments 3:15 pm
Talk 3:30 pm




Astrobiology is the study of life in the universe and it covers everything from detecting habitable planets around distant stars to examining amino acids trapped in icy comets. Astrobiology rovers may someday search for evidence of life on the surface of other planets and moons but today they study life surviving in extreme environments here on Earth.


In arctic environments microorganisms can survive in the pore spaces between ice crystals including deep in the Antarctic ice sheet.  Whether organisms migrate up from the glacial bed or down from the surface is an important question of origin that can be addressed by looking at how organisms are distributed in the ice.  For this study a robotic system must travel long distances and appropriately manage limited resources to collect measurements on polar sheets.


A flooded sinkhole in Mexico with subterranean hydrothermal features is an interesting analog to Europa where any organisms would need to survive without light, drawing energy and nutrition from the warm chemical soup at the bottom.  But these environments are completely unmapped prior to arrival so robotic explorers will need to localize within the environment and build maps as they explore autonomously.


The Atacama Desert includes some of the most lifeless areas on Earth, but these conditions are not homogenous and many microhabitats exist leading.  The distribution of life is governed by solar radiation, humidity, soil composition, and as yet unknown factors.  To map and understand this distribution a robot will need efficient and reliable mobility.  It also needs to intelligently select from countless observations those few measurements and images that are significant.


In this talk I will motivate work in robotic astrobiology by describing these field investigations and the robotic technologies required to conduct them.  I will describe current research and progress in efficient mobility, resource-cognizant planning, sustained navigation, and science autonomy.  As we explore these terrestrial environments we learn about the technologies and techniques that will enable the next generation of robotic astrobiologists.



Speaker Biography


David Wettergreen is an Associate Research Professor in the Robotics Institute.  He leads projects mapping the distribution of microhabitats in the desert, understanding the migration of organisms in ice, and characterizing life in a subterranean hydrothermal system. He addresses robotic exploration underwater, on the surface, and in air and space, and the necessary ingredients of perception, planning, learning and control for robot autonomy. Dr. Wettergreen’s recent research addresses multi-scale navigation, science autonomy, and remotely-guided investigations. 


Dr. Wettergreen obtained his Ph.D. in Robotics in 1995 from Carnegie Mellon and conducted post-doctoral research at NASA Ames Research Center in 1996-97. He was a Research Fellow at the Australian National University in 1998-2000.  For more than a decade, with robots including Dante, Marsokhod, Nomad, Kambara and Hyperion in sites in Antarctica, Alaska, Chile, Australia and arctic Canada, robotic exploration of challenging environments has been a recurring theme. His goal is to develop the methods and practice of robotics required to engage in scientific discovery, productive work, and engaging adventure on our planet and beyond.



Speaker Appointments

For appointments, please contact David Wettergreen (

The Robotics Institute is part of the School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University.