Moving people and supplies across the Great White South is treacherous, difficult, and expensive with logistical costs constituting as much as 90 percent of an expedition's budget—about $125,000 a trip on average. And that's assuming the convoy isn't swallowed by an ice crevasse en route. But a new radar-equipped rover could help the National Science Foundation save lives and millions of dollars a year.
The Antarctic is a hotbed of scientific research stations studying everything from newly-discovered marine environments to the furthest reaches of the universe. But performing these tasks requires large amounts of fuel, which is not an easy commodity to obtain given the United States Antarctic Program observatories' distance hundreds of miles from the Antarctic coast and the treacherous, shifting ice sheets. The NSF can and has hired C-130s to simply airlift fuel out there but each flight costs a whopping $8,000.
They have also recently begun dragging the supplies to distant outposts aboard tractors but they face the constant danger of falling into a hidden crevasse (read: a crack in the ice sheet 30 feet wide, 200 feet deep, and covered by a weak "bridge" of snow). "In order to get up onto the ice cap, you have to explore a crevasse-free route," project co-lead Jim Lever told The Dartmouth. To do so, tractors have traditionally suspended ground penetrating radar ahead of themselves on 30-foot booms but this method only leaves 2.5 seconds to react before falling in.
But now, tractor crews are being led by the Yeti, a four-wheel drive rover equipped with ground penetrating radar designed by students at Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering coordinating with engineers from the US Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab in Hanover. "Yeti does exactly the same thing [as the boom-suspension method], but you can program it a route and have it drive a route in front of the lead vehicle, and it will use the radar to find where the crevasses are," Lever said.
The radar "generates a continuous wave form of the layers it detects under the surface," Lever continued. Solid ice pack creates a steady horizontal band pattern while concealed crevasses appear as an "interference pattern that has a very characteristic appearance." Plus, the rover is both light enough—just 150 pounds—to avoid breaking the snow bridge and tumbling to a frozen grave as well as cheap enough—just $25,000—to be easily replaceable if it does.
"It's not likely to fall through, and there's no danger to the robot except losing the robot," said Laura Ray, Dartmouth engineer and co-lead of the Yeti project. In fact, the NSF estimates that Yeti-guided trips to McMurdo Station alone will save the organization $2 million annually over the C-130 method.
Researchers are already looking to build more Yetis to guide additional supply runs throughout Greenland and the Arctic as well as transfer the Yeti's technology—currently limited by the rover's three-hour battery life—to Dartmouth's solar-powered Cool Robot.