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.”
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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.”
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.