NASA interested in Thayer-designed robot
By Zach Swiss, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Thursday, March 2, 2006
Officially named the "Cool Robot" by students and faculty members at the Thayer School of Engineering, the robot designed to function in arctic temperatures may have surpassed "cool" and entered the realm of "out of this world," if the interest from NASA is any indication.
The robot, envisioned and built by a team of students and faculty members at the Thayer School of Engineering, could potentially be used by NASA for research in Antarctica, according to Professor Laura Ray, the team leader and primary investigator for the project.
NASA's goal is to use the robot to search for evidence of bacteria in Antarctic snow. The project would serve as a template for any future efforts to explore the terrain of Mars in search of life.
"[NASA] came to us because they felt that they couldn't design and fabricate a robot at such low costs," Ray said. "They felt that they could really benefit from our concept."
Though many Dartmouth students might claim that if the Cool Robot can withstand a winter in Hanover, it can sustain temperatures anywhere, the team felt that testing in colder climates was necessary. Not only has the robot been tested at nearby Lake Mascoma, the team traveled to Greenland last summer to test the robot's mobility and speed in Greenland.
These alternate environments were necessary because they offered conditions that are similar to those in Antarctica. For instance, Greenland has sun angles that replicate the 24 hours of light that exist in Antarctica in some seasons.
Nevertheless, the team hopes to test the robot in Antarctica soon due to certain environmental differences between Greenland and Antarctica. For one, the snow in Antarctica is firmer than that of Greenland. Ray added that there was not a significant difference between the coldest temperatures in Hanover during the winter and the warmest temperatures in Antarctica or Greenland.
Since the robot is designed to travel in polar temperatures, it possesses great potential for scientists.
"The robot is a general purpose mobile platform that can carry a host of different instruments," Ray said.
One potential use of the robot includes transporting magnetometers which measure magnetic fields. In addition, it could be used by scientists who study climatology or glaciology to carry equipment across frigid plains.
Another scenario involves using the robot to ensure the safety of "ice runways" in Antarctica. These ice runways serve as landing strips for planes that fly to Antarctica and they must be sufficiently thick to support the weight of the incoming planes.
Five siblings to the Cool Robot, with minor design refinements, could be in the works contingent on further funding from the National Science Foundation, the organization that provided funding for the initial robot.
Dan Denton '08 began his work on the robot even before he matriculated to Dartmouth, spending much of his time working on the communication between the robot and its operator.
In addition to helping with the robot's construction, Denton enjoyed working together with the rest of the Cool Robot team.
"One of the most interesting things about it is the large group of people brought together on it," Denton said in reference to the graduate students, professors and exchange students who all contributed to the robot's formation.