Carnegie Mellon Robotic Helicopter Will Help NASA Scientists Explore A Remote Arctic Crater And Learn More About Mars

June 16, 1998

PITTSBURGH, Penn.--To learn more about Mars and its early history, NASA scientists will use an experimental robotic helicopter and other technologies developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute to explore a barren meteorite impact crater on a tiny island in the Arctic Circle.

From June 22 to July 26, a 20-member science team from NASA, Carnegie Mellon and several other research organizations will explore the Haughton Impact Crater on Devon Island in the Canadian High Arctic. Scientists consider the site to be a potential Mars analog because many of its geologic features, including ice-rich terrains, ancient lake sediments and nearby networks of small valleys, resemble those reported at the surface of Mars. The site may shed light on the red planet's early history when its climate may have been wetter and warmer.

During the expedition, Carnegie Mellon Systems Scientist Omead Amidi and other engineers from the university will conduct field tests with the robotic helicopter to assess its potential for future aerial mapping, exploration and reconnaissance. The small, 160-pound autonomous machine has vision-based stability and position control, as well as an on-board navigation computer, laser rangefinder and video capture hardware for site mapping. The scientists believe the helicopter could prove useful for field reconnaissance and systematic mapping of the crater.

"This mission provides a great opportunity to demonstrate the feasibility and the value of robotic aircraft for unmanned mapping and surveying applications," Amidi said.

The autonomous helicopter project began in 1991 as the the subject of Amidi's doctoral thesis. Amidi started with an electrical model helicopter mounted on a swiveling arm platform attached to poles by graphite rods. He worked for nearly three years to perfect its position estimation and control systems and by 1995 he had a machine that could fly autonomously. He continued to work on free flight and vision issues, and by 1996 the system could take off and land autonomously, perform in 40-to-45-mile-per-hour wind gusts, sense its position in the field, track multiple objects, discriminate colors and build aerial maps. In July 1997, Amidi's helicopter won the seventh International Unmanned Aerial Robotics competition at Disney World.

"An unmanned vision-based helicopter will open up views of this exploration that are not easily available," said Robotics Institute Director Takeo Kanade, who was Amidi's thesis adviser. "This project also can open up a broad range of applications for the helicopter, including rescue, mapping, remote filming and inspection."

More information about the helicopter can be found at http://www.ri.cmu.edu/project/chopper.

Other Carnegie Mellon researchers on the Haughton Mars expedition will conduct experiments with a ground-penetrating radar system and a field spectrometer, which are being developed to aid robotic exploration for meteorites in Antarctica. Both systems were tested earlier this year on an expedition to Patriot Hills on the frozen continent.

The field spectrometer will be deployed by hand, along with a metal detector and magnetometer around the Haughton crater, to determine the site's reflective qualities and better understand its compositional evolution. At the same time, it will gather data on autonomous classification and "understanding" of rock data by a robot.

The radar system will be deployed in an attempt to map ground-ice and other subsurface conditions within and outside the crater's 20-kilometer (12-mile) diameter. The radar echoes will be contrasted to near surface core drilling samples that will be extracted at the same locations.

A portable stereo camera system developed by Carnegie Mellon scientists and previously used aboard the university's Nomad rover during its unprecedented 133-mile wheeled trek through Chile's Atacama Desert last summer, will be used to acquire high-resolution images of the site and produce images for a 360-degree photo-realistic virtual reality project being developed by Ames' Intelligent Mechanisms Group.

Team members will operate from a base camp on a terrace of the Haughton River within the crater's perimeter and explore the site using All Terrain Vehicles. Supplies will be brought in by Twin Otter airplane, while a helicopter will aid exploration of remote sites. The scientists will communicate with other field team members and send live images to each other via a wireless link using laptop computer systems and "mobile workstations" developed by Ames' Intelligent Mobile Technologies Team.

NASA is funding the $80,000 project in part with a grant from the National Research Council. Additional support is being provided by the Johnson Space Center, Houston; the Geological Survey of Canada; the Polar Continental Shelf Project of Canada, the Nunavut Research Institute, Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute, NovAtel Communications, Calgary, Alberta, and the National Geographic Society.

The Web site for the Haaughton Mars project is http://www.arctic-mars.org.

NASA Television will air animation and footage about this story at 3, 6,9 p.m. and Midnight EDT. NASA Television is available on GE-2, transponder 9C at 85 degrees West longitude, with vertical polarization. Frequency is on 3880.0 megahertz, with audio on 6.8 megahertz.
-end-


Carnegie Mellon University

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