Self-driving sleds? Australian scientists look to robots to delve deeper into Antarctica

Researchers and engineers team up to identify new technologies to safely delve deeper into the icy continent

Robots could soon collect tissue samples from whales off the coast of Antarctica or fly long distances over the icy continent with surveillance cameras, allowing Australian scientists to observe dangerous and previously inaccessible areas.

The Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) has partnered with Prof Peter Corke, a robotics expert, to develop a shortlist of new technologies that could improve safety and scientific research on the continent.

This process also has a strategic motivation; the federal government has a 10-year plan to boost its presence in the 42% of Antarctica where Australia has a historical territorial claim.

“Antarctica is where the impacts of climate change are very strong and very easy to discern, so it is important to study the changes in this environment,” said Corke, who is a researcher at Queensland University of Technology.

“But doing this work in Antarctica is just incredibly challenging. It’s very cold. It’s very windy. It’s very remote. Getting people to do this type of work is expensive and there’s an element of risk.”

Corke, who has developed prototypes used at the International Space Station, spent three months with AAD scientists in Hobart researching opportunities for robots. His report has now been presented to the federal government.

The division is already using robots to study remote Adélie penguin colonies and to map the ocean floor. Corke’s proposals include autonomous vehicles that could service remote campsites.

“You can imagine a smallish robot – smaller than a regular passenger car – that can tow a sled without a driver. You just tell it where to go and it will do its thing and then come back to you,” Corke said.

“The problem is that when humans do something like this, you can’t just have one person out there for safety reasons. There has to be two people at least. And then if something goes wrong, a search and rescue team need to be deployed.”

Adélie penguins off the east Antarctic coast, near the AAD’s Mawson research station.
Adélie penguins off the east Antarctic coast, near the AAD’s Mawson research station. Photograph: Australian Antarctic Division

Brett Chatwood, a manager in the AAD’s technology and innovation branch, said work had already started on using robots to monitor whale populations in the Southern Ocean.

“We are looking at collaborating with international partners to develop the ability to deploy tagging devices from drones and to take biopsies of whales,” Chatwood said.

“At the moment, that work is done by putting scientists into small boats in the Southern Ocean and trying to get close enough to have that interaction with the whales.

“From a safety point of view, doing that work with a drone is going to be a lot safer for our people and less disruptive for the animals.”

The federal government’s 10-year plan set aside $109m for the development of a new drone fleet, autonomous vehicles and medium lift helicopters.

Chatwood said long-range drones would be tested from the research vessel Nuyina, once it returns from repair work.

“The drone itself is a bus. It’s a bus that allows us to take sensors to places that we have not been able to take them before, either off a research vessel or stations or field camps,” he said.

The environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, said the development of robotics was vital to ensuring Australia’s environmental record in Antarctica.

“Australia’s science in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean provides a window into past and present climate that helps informs us about the extent and consequences of climate change,” Plibersek said.

“Academia and industry are working together to develop and adapt robotic technologies for the harsh Antarctic environment in the delivery of globally important climate and ecosystem science.”

Corke said many of the technologies needed already exist, but must be strengthened to survive in the harsh Antarctic climate.


Henry Belot

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Onus on Australia to take diplomatic lead in protecting Antarctica | Tim Stephens
Government needs to get on the front foot to ensure plans for Marine Protected Areas are not watered down by other parties

Tim Stephens

08, Jul, 2017 @1:04 AM

Article image
Climate change is turning Antarctica green, say researchers
In the past 50 years the quantity and rate of plant growth has shot up, says study, suggesting further warming could lead to rapid ecosystem changes

Nicola Davis

18, May, 2017 @4:00 PM

Article image
Climate change is turning parts of Antarctica green, say scientists
Researchers map ‘beginning of new ecosystem’ as algae bloom across surface of melting snow

Jonathan Watts

20, May, 2020 @9:00 AM

Article image
As Antarctica opens up, will privateer explorers be frozen out?
The dramatic rescue of 52 people from a ship in the Antarctic has raised questions over who can explore the continent. Alok Jha, who was on the vessel, reports

Alok Jha

28, Feb, 2014 @9:00 AM

Article image
Aerosol study to look at great unknown in climate science
Australian scientists seek to understand how non-carbon aerosolised particles affect global temperatures

Calla Wahlquist

21, Feb, 2017 @7:09 PM

Article image
'Colder and deeper’: Scientists close in on spot to drill Antarctic ice core 1.5m years old
Australian Antarctic Division will drill 3,000 metres deep in bid to improve ancient climate records and future models

Graham Readfearn

12, Feb, 2021 @7:00 PM

Article image
Time tunnel: why an Australian expedition is drilling through 2.6km of Antarctic ice
Ancient air trapped deep below the surface could unlock secrets of the Earth’s past and help understand what lies ahead as CO2 in the atmosphere keeps rising

Graham Readfearn

14, Jan, 2023 @7:00 PM

Article image
Penguin disaster as just two chicks survive from colony of 40,000
‘Catastrophic breeding event’ leads to demands for a marine protected area to be set up in East Antarctica

Michael Slezak

13, Oct, 2017 @6:31 AM

Article image
Australia’s new $528m icebreaker research vessel Nuyina suffers another setback
Macquarie Island resupply mission will now be carried out by a smaller chartered ship, delaying some scientific research

Henry Belot

31, Jan, 2023 @3:55 AM

Article image
Antarctic science expedition put on ice due to problems with Australia’s research vessel Nuyina
Ocean voyage to study declining sea ice levels cancelled after RSV Nuyina required repairs, leaving climate scientists dismayed

Henry Belot

15, Feb, 2023 @2:00 PM