Friday, October 30, 2009

ENDURANCE - Man, this Bot has a lot of SAS!

Calling all robots -

I have been in Antarctica for exactly 1 month. I am here as a Grantee (a scientist- well, an undergraduate student- working under a NSF grant) on a project spearheaded by my Professor at University of Illinois at Chicago, Peter Doran. The project is called ENDURANCE: (Environmentally Non-Disturbing Under-ice Robotic ANtarctiC Explorer).
Endurance is a large (7ft tall and wide and 3,00lbs) AUV, autonomous underwater vehicle, that explores the frozen lake, Lake Bonney, in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica.

ENDURANCE has a NASA grant with NSF, National Science Foundation, funding to explore and map the West Lobe of Lake Bonney and the interface of the lake and Taylor Glacier.
(info from Endurance website):

We are developing an autonomous under­water ve­hicle (AUV) capable of generating for the first time, 3-D bio­geochemical datasets in the extreme environ­ment of a perennially ice-covered Ant­arc­tic dry val­ley lake. The ENDURANCE (En­vi­ron­men­tally Non - Dis­turbing Under - ice Robotic ANtarctic Explorer) will map the under - ice lake dimen­sions of West Lake Bonney in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, and be equipped to measure temper­ature, elec­tri­cal con­duc­tivity, am­bient light, chlor­ophyll-a, Dis­solved Or­ganic Mat­ter, pH and redox of the water column in the entire lake. Visible imaging will also be performed on the benthic microbial mats, other lake bottom materials, lake ice bottom and the glacier contact, for all of which there is a paucity of data. The AUV is being specifically designed to minimize impact on the environ­ment it is working in. This is primarily to meet strict Antarctic environ­mental protocols, but will also be a useful feature for planetary protection and improved planetary science in the future.

The robot with his clothes on

Chris with a naked Endurance

The robot in the water, last season.

Over-arching Goals:
- further biological re­search in the ter­res­trial en­vi­ron­ments analo­gous to those found on other planets,

- develop tech­nologies that enable remote searches for, and identification of, life in extreme environments

- perform a systems - level field campaign designed to demon­strate and vali­date the science and tech­nology in extreme environ­ments on Earth. (Astro­biology Science and Tech­nology for Ex­ploring the Planets) Program.

SAS - Stone Aerospace:
The robot was designed and built by the amazing robotic engineers at Stone Aerospace, or SAS, in Austin, Texas. And man does this robot have a lot of SAS!

Dr. Bill Stone is a Co-Investigator for Endurance. He is also the president and CEO of Stone Aerospace, the engineering company that designed and built the Endurance vehicle.

Bart Hogan is a mechanical engineer for Stone Aerospace.

Dr. Kristof Richmond is a programmer for Stone Aerospace, focusing on navigation.

Shilpa Gulati
is a programmer for Stone Aerospace, focusing on the system executive and machine vision. She is also a PhD student at University of Texas, Austin.
Chris Flesher is the vehicle manager, programmer, and electronics technician for Stone Aerospace. He is a Masters student at UT Austin.

Rachel Middleton Price
is an electronics technician for Stone Aerospace.

Vickie Siegel
is chief vehicle technician and logistics manager for Stone Aerospace.

These are all the SAS staff involved in the Lake Bonney 09 season.

Melting the robot's hole:

There were many things that needed to be accomplished before Endurance could go for a swim. For the past 12days, Maciek Obryk and Jim Olech have been melting the 8ft wide and 11ft deep cylindrical hole. Maciek and Jim are in charge of melting the hole, because equipment tends to breakdown a lot in Antarctica, and they can fix it. They are master hole-melters! They have spent all day everyday going back and forth from our worksite, at West Lobe Lake Bonney, and our Jamesway, at East Lobe, a 30min ATV ride around the edge of the lake. The melting process involves moving hot fingers (extremely hot coils that sit in the ice and melt the hole) around the hole, fueling the generators and Hotsy(s) (the devices that melt glycol and provide the heat to the hot fingers). The generators power the Hotsys and are filled with Mo-Gas (a certain type of gasoline). Then the Hotsy's use that power to burn diesel gas that heats up the glycol. This food-grade glycol then gets pumped into the coils of the hot fingers. The idea is that the ice then melts. Last year, when the hole was being melted in late November, it took one day. This year, we are here earlier in the season, which means it is much colder and they have spent 12+ days melting this hole. The hole refreezes constantly and on top of all that the Hotsys keep breaking down from being overworked! We have already shipped two away to the Hotsy Hospital, or MEC (mechanical equipment center) at McMurdo station. This is painstaking and literally back-breaking work, as Maciek is off to McMurdo to have his back looked at from a hole-related injury. The hole is slowly coming to completion after days and days of constant refueling and chipping the ice at the surface, using a underwater camera to check that the cylinder stays even down the sides, and moving hot fingers all around. It is insanely impressive that these boys are still standing upright, well they are napping now, but you know what I mean!

Jim checking out a Hotsy

The hole

Maciek looking over the progress of the hole, in preparation for the long night ahead

Jim and Maciek placing a hot finger near a ridge in the ice, to melt it away so the circle is smooth and perfectly cylindrical

Maciek and Jim surveying the hole and hot fingers locations before a long night of melting

Me and the hole, under the ENDURANCE sign

Maciek lying down to rest his thrown out back... he works too hard

Construction of the "Bot House":

The "Bot" as the robot is referred to round these parts, stays in the "Bot House". This is a giant Polar Haven, a type of building constructed on the ice to provide shelter. It looks similar to our Jamesway. The steps to its construction began with Maciek picking the site and beginning to melt the hole there.

Then we got in 10 carpenters, or carps, from McMurdo that camped out around the construction site on West Lobe. Last year the SAS and Endurance team built this structure all by themselves, but this year we got much needed help, expertise and labor from the carps.
Two Hotsys sit in front of the carps camp set-up

The "Bot House" floor went up in two days, first they leveled the foundation, it was my job to use the leveling surveyor and tell them if each section was level to a certain number.
Bot House foundation being leveled

Then they added the sections of the floor, it was sort of like constructing a giant jigsaw puzzle.

All the carps and Bill get ready to lift a floor piece

Puzzle piece in place
The sections of floor were so large, an ATV was brought in to move them all into place. Very carefully a carp drove an ATV toward the floor piece they were moving, then all 9 other carps and Bill would lift and move the piece on to the back of the ATV. They would then stand behind and to the sides of the ATV holding the piece while it was driven into its place in the puzzle.

The awesome power of the carps was quite a scene to watch. It was amazing what they could accomplish together. By the end of one long day they had put the pieces, of what I thought was a large and difficult puzzle, into place. The next day it was snowing! It was time to bolt the floor together. Each junction was either a 1 (2 pieces being put together end to end), 2 (2 pieces being put together side to side) or a 3 which was (three pieces being fastened together side to side to side). These three different junctions took three different lengths of bolts to fasten them together. My job was to get all the people doing the actual work, all the bolts, washers, and nuts they needed. It seemed near the end of a long day of bolting we were going to run out of washers, then run out of 6" bolts, but with a little rearranging done by the king of the carps, Mombok, and Bill we had all the pieces bolted into place. The bot was to arrive tomorrow via helicopter, and the floor of its house was ready.
You learn early on in Antarctica that weather delays common, almost nothing happens on schedule or without being affected one way or another by the harsh and unpredictable Antarctica weather. The next day the winds were 25-30knots with gusts up to 40mph!! The Bot could not be flown in this weather, it is too dangerous for the helos to carry a load, like the bot, on a day this windy and then the bot could be damaged. No flying... No ifs, ands, or bots.

The bot arrived the next day along with all 6 other members of Stone Aerospace, SAS, and all their science cargo of fiber-optic cable, batteries, computers, and sonar. The robot was flown in - stripped down to the bare minimum, and dressed in his carrying case, or trench-coat as I call it. The helo, in the awesome precision the pilots have, place the bot down onto the floor with perfect precision.

The medal bar and tarp enclosure quickly came up around the bot and heat was added. The "Bot House" was complete and ready for the season ahead.
The "Bot House" under mid-afternoon sun

The swing loads of expensive, DNF (Do Not Freeze), science equipment came next and needed a warm place to be stored. The next few days were filled with unpacking all the gear. I got to spend a few hours watching the robot get ready and this is what I saw:
The "Bot" in his house, with his clothes lying next to him

- Chris and Kristof were making contact; they established a comm shop and were wiring the building to establish communication with the robot. They fed fiber-optic cable from the computer docking stations over to the hole. This line of communication is how the robot sends all the data it collects back to the SAS team.

- Bart was cleaning the robot's room, as we put it, unloading boxes and unpacking special, expensive, and very breakable scientific equipment that I could touch, but I could look at called Servo motors.

- Vickie and Rachel were undressing the robot from his traveler's trench-coat, and mounting on cameras with aqua sealant to prevent the two different metals from making contact with each other and become electronically charged.

- Bill was making adjustments to the "Bot House" and generally fixing things for the robot. Also making sure all the proper equipment was there.

- Shilpa was sick this day, and so she was back at 'home' resting.

Kristof up on a ladder, snaps a shot of Vicky, Rachel and, I working on the bot
Rachel and I smile up at Kristof

With all this SAS around it, this robot didn't have to lift a finger all day! All the members of SAS spend their days here leaving in the morning from the Jamesway at East Lobe Bonney and taking the ATV ride over to West Lobe Lake Bonney to work on the robot. When the hole is finally large enough, which should happen any day now, the robot will get to take his first dip in the lake.

Overview of this Season:

The plan for the season is basically divided into two parts. One part of the bot's mission here is to collect Sonde points (Sonde with a silent e). The Sonde, instrument lowered to collect data, points are collected by the robot traveling in a grid pattern, 100m at a time, and lowering the science load, or Sonde, down to about a meter above the ground. The science package collects data sets and measurements and then is pulled back up. Last year they did not quite complete the points throughout West Lobe, Lake Bonney so this year they will go back over area they covered last year and then collect points from the areas they could not get to last year.

The next mission is called the Glacier mission. At the west end of Lake Bonney lies Taylor Glacier and an area called Blood Falls.
Taylor Glacier, West Lobe Lake Bonney
Blood Falls and Taylor Glacier
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek (USAP)
Blood Falls is an outflow of iron-oxide rich saltwater from inside the glacier, flowing out of Taylor Glacier. It looks like a red water fall that has stained the glacier; Blood Falls - pretty good name huh?

Peter Doran would like to the robot to map the interface, or meeting, of the glacier and the lake. The bot would go up to the glacier face, underwater, and use its multi-beam sonars to map the face of the glacier all the way up and down it. Then the plan is to weight the bot down with 500lbs of lead weights (500lbs of lead weight Loralee and I were responsible for packing in McMurdo!). The weight would allow the bot to go beneath the bottom of the glacier into an underwater caved formed by Lake Bonney and Taylor Glacier. This is completely unknown territory, as was most of Lake Bonney prior to Endurance's season last year. This under glacier exploration has the possibility of showing us something no one, or no bot, has ever seen before!

While these goals for Endurance are all incredible pioneer scientific expeditions in their own right, they also serve a greater mission. As I mentioned, this is a NASA funded project, these Antarctic explorations give us scientific data from Lake Bonney from a perspective no one has ever had before, a AUV. These also function as test missions for an eventual (2020 or 2030) trip to explore Jupiter's moon, Europa, which is believed to have oceans of liquid water which are under miles of ice.
Diagram of Europa's possible liquid ocean
Europa, Jupiter's Frozen Moon

This could only happen with a much more money and a much smaller AUV. Well, Endurance, its time to get in a season of work-outs and shed some of that 3,000+ poundage!




  1. The "bot" diet, I can see it now - all the rage.
    Thanks for explaining the project - and it is a cut looking vehicle.

    The ice seems like a hurdle. Like shoveling the driveway then it snows again.

    Great work from the team. Good post for us. m.

  2. What was that little thing that look like a tiy truck?

  3. The robot look cool