At 10,530 feet above sea level and deep inside the Arctic Circle, NASA could hardly find a more inhospitable place to test its new rover than Summit Camp, Greenland. After one month in the snow and sub-freezing temperatures, GROVER is still functioning.
According to a press release, engineering students who visited Goddard Space Flight Center over the summers of 2010 and 2011 designed NASA’s newest rover, which was then transported to Boise State University for further development.
Sporting ground-penetrating radar that can analyze the multiple layers of ice and snow, GROVER can spend weeks travelling across the harsh Greenland Ice Sheet with minimal guidance from human controllers.
GROVER’s primary mission was to demonstrate its ability to execute commands transmitted via an Iridium satellite connection.
“When we saw it moving and travelling to the locations our professor had keyed in from Boise, we knew all of our hard work had paid off,” said Gabriel Trisca in a news release. A graduate student from Boise State University, Trisca attended Goddard’s summer boot camps and has been working on the GROVER project since the beginning. “GROVER has grown to be a fully-autonomous, GPS-guided and satellite-linked platform for scientific research.”
GROVER stands for both Greenland Rover and Goddard Remotely Operated Vehicle for Exploration and Research.
However, NASA notes that there is still room for improvement. Scientists had hoped that GROVER could operate 24 hours a day, but the solar panels were unable to provide more than a 12-hour charge.
“This is very common the first time you take an instrument into an environment like Greenland,” said Hans-Peter Marshall, geoscientist at Boise State University and science adviser on the project, in a news release. “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.”
For the power test on June 2, researchers sent GROVER a list of coordinates forming a large circle outside of Summit Camp. GROVER went around the loop three times and tracked all of the waypoints.
NASA Goddard/Matt Radcliff
Aside from improving the 800-pound robot’s battery life, scientists also hope to upgrade its satellite connection. The Iridium satellite connection is intended for small-data operations like sending signals to pagers or cell phones, meaning that much of the data GROVER collects is kept onboard. If scientists are able to upgrade GROVER to a geostationary satellite connection then the robot will be able to send massive amounts of data in real time.
One day GROVER could play a critical role in tracking mass loss along the Greenland Ice Sheet by providing tracking over extended periods of time and in locations too difficult for sustained human observation.
"When you work at the poles, on the ice, it's cold, it's tiring, it's expensive and there's a limit to how much ground you can cover on snowmobiles," said Lora Koenig, glaciologist at Goddard Space Flight Center. "It would be great if autonomous robotic platforms could do part of this work -- especially the part where high winds and blowing snow try to freeze your skin.”
GROVER travelled 18 miles over the course of five weeks.