PITTSBURGH—Nomad, one of Carnegie Mellon University's most accomplished robotic rovers, is at it again. This time the rover that trekked 220 km through Chile's Atacama Desert and explored Antarctica for meteorites, is being groomed for a potential return to the frozen continent to search for signs of living microorganisms near the top of its icy surface.
Carnegie Mellon robotics researchers recently deployed Nomad on the frozen surface of Lake Mascoma in Hanover, New Hampshire, as part of the the LORAX Project ((Life on Ice, Robotic Antarctic Explorer), which seeks to measure the distribution of surviving microorganisms in the near-surface ice on the Antarctic plateau.
Nomad, which successfully traversed 10 kilometers through the snow and ice on Lake Mascoma, was equipped with a wind turbine for the first time, while researchers studied the possibility of powering a robotic investigation with combined wind and solar energy.
Carnegie Mellon and NASA researchers worked with the Army's Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) in Hanover, to arrange the long-distance autonomous navigation tests on Lake Mascoma, which they say simulates the flat, icy terrain of the Antarctic plateau. CRREL also provided logistical support and test facilities to the Carnegie Mellon and NASA team. CRREL researchers made ice thickness measurements throughout the test area and confirmed 18 inches as safe conditions for the rover trials.
Nomad, which has been upgraded with sensors and computing to increase its ability to act independently, first gained notoriety in 1997 when it traveled through the Atacama and again in 2000 when it autonomously discovered meteorites in Antarctica. and became the first robot to perform science on its own. In the past, Nomad has largely been teleoperated, but for the LORAX expedition, it was given the "brains" of another robot called Zoë that has been surveying microscopic life in the Atacama Desert.
"The goal of this field experiment was to establish that Nomad's mobility on snow and ice and our technology for autonomous navigation meet the requirements for survey traverse in the Antarctic," said Robotics Institute Associate Research Professor David Wettergreen.
Carnegie Mellon alumnus Liam Pedersen of NASA's Ames Research Center is the project's principal investigator. Wettergreen and Senior Systems Scientist Dimitrios Apostolopoulos are co-investigators at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute where the rover design and analysis, and autonomous navigation work is being done. Apostolopoulos has been leading rover mechanism work while Wettergreen has been developing its autonomy. The Carnegie Mellon researchers are being funded by a one-year, $400,000 grant from NASA.
Researchers at the University of Oklahoma are developing an ice coring and sampling device, while others at the University of California at Berkeley are developing a fluorescence spectrometer, which could be the primary science instrument in identifying the presence and abundance of microorganisms in Antarctic ice.
The Army's Cold Regions Research Laboratory is part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the leading research center for cold and ice-related issues. It also provides vehicle support for the National Science Foundation in Antarctica.