While a robot yeti may sound like the stuff of science fiction, for the National Science Foundation (NSF), it's anything but as it plans to send the Yeti robot on missions to the Arctic and the Antarctic regions. The Yeti's purpose is to help make these trips safer by allowing the robot to find hidden fissures and other potential hazards in the snow field before the hazards can be blundered into by humans.
The Yeti robot uses a combination of self-guiding systems and ground-penetrating radar to get a better handle on just where potential hazards can be found, and then avoids them, showing snow cats and similar vehicles behind the Yeti just where to drive to best stay out of trouble. It also represents the first such autonomous mechanism that's not only intended to spot such troubles, but that has also successfully overcome those hazards in earlier testing. The Yeti was recently tested on what's known as the Inland Traverse in Greenland, which connects Thule in Greenland's northern sections to the NSF's Summit Station located on Greenland's ice cap. There was also testing conducted on the South Pole Traverse, connecting the South Pole with Antarctica's McMurdo Station.
The Yeti itself weighs 180 pounds, offers four wheel drive capability, and runs off a battery power system, yet can still be operated in temperatures reaching about -30 Celsius, or -20 Fahrenheit for those who favor the imperial measures. Developed by a team of researchers from the U.S. Army's Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) and Dartmouth College's Thayer School of Engineering, the Yeti is not only intended to improve safety in arctic situations, but also looks to lower the costs of operating in those regions as well.
While, admittedly, the Yeti has something of a narrow focus--it's not like it would do much good on, say, the ocean floor or in anywhere it doesn't snow--its truest potential may not be in arctic exploration but rather in interplanetary operations. Consider that, while there are still some scientific expeditions and the like going on in Arctic regions, Arctic regions don't exactly represent a large portion of land mass on the Earth. But take what's learned in those regions to other planets--especially those whose environments look a lot like those of the Arctic--and suddenly there's a whole new value proposition going on here.
Developing robots for use in the Arctic has, let's face it, a certain value. Protecting lives in hazardous environments is a noble goal and should be undertaken. But we may well only be looking at the tip of the iceberg here--no pun intended--and instead seeing not robots designed to function in a comparatively low-use environment, but rather the first generation of explorers of other planets.
Edited by Brooke Neuman