SHENYANG, Liaoning - China's latest Antarctic expedition team, which set sail on Thursday, is equipped with a high-tech drone that will help scientists access data from areas that were too dangerous for humans. Designed by the State Key Laboratory of Robotics at the Shenyang Institute of Automation, the remote-controlled equipment is able to measure temperatures and other environmental conditions. "The drone will travel as far as it can and record data, such as the thickness of ice sheets," said Bu Chunguang, one of the designers and part of the 220-people-strong expedition team. "Since this will be my first trip to the polar region, I take it as a challenge for the drone and me. But I believe we will both fulfill our tasks with good preparation."
The costs of installing the drone were not revealed. Bu said it was fitted with a very expensive high-powered global positioning system. This is the second time since the 2007 expedition that the State Key laboratory at the Shenyang Institute of Automation has built equipment for an Antarctic mission. Chinese scientists have been exploring the Antarctic since 1984, visiting annually to take samples for studies in glaciology, meteorology, biology, geophysics and environmental sciences. However, the perilous environment made it too dangerous and costly for people to travel long distances for sampling. "
In the 2007 test we found some design problems with the machine, so we recorded them and made improvements after we were back," said researcher Zhao Yiwen at the Shenyang institute. In the country's first trial for Antarctic robots in 2007, Zhao and his colleague, Han Jianda, spent weeks testing a robot in a shelter made over from a shipping container near Zhongshan, a Chinese research station on Larsemann Hills in Prydz Bay, East Antarctica. "Before we arrived in the Antarctic, we thought the ground would be covered by thick ice so we installed nails on the caterpillar to prevent slipping," Zhao said. "But we found snow everywhere, and the heavy nails were useless. "Also we initially used lithium battery, but later found its power reduced a lot in the freezing weather."
Although Zhao is not traveling with the expedition team this year, he keeps working on the Antarctic robot. The robot is now gasoline-powered and metal caterpillars have been replaced with rubber ones to reduce its weight. And this time, Bu Chunguang and Chen Cheng, a fellow team member, will test the robot at the Antarctic. "We did this to increase the traveling range of the robot, which we expect to increase to more than 50 km from 10 km of the last one," said Bu Chunguang. "But whether the robot could run so far still depends on the situation on the field."
The scientists are better prepared than the last time. "We take an extra portable electric generator. In case the robot breaks down halfway through, we will need the electric generator to fix it," Bu said. Bu said the biggest threat in the Antarctic might be cracked ice, covered by snow. "Some are thousands of meters deep, and you cannot see them from the surface because the snow fills the gap. But I believe I will be safe if I stay away from regions the Antarctic station warned me about."
However, when it comes to the North Pole, the situation turns even more complicated. "Similarly, the North Pole acts as a barometer for climate-change researches, but unlike the Antarctic, the North Pole is not a continent (it is actually under the sea)," said Li Shuo, also a researcher with the Shenyang Institute of Automation, who had been to the Arctic with the scientific expedition team twice. "As a result, most Arctic scientific researches have been conducted on the ice, and the underwater robot is one of the advanced tools to dive under the ice layer for environment monitoring."
So far China had sent four scientific expedition teams to the Arctic - in 1999, 2003, 2008 and 2010. The last three involved a robot.
"I really wish that we continue to obtain high quality scientific data in the next expeditions, and hope that underwater robot can be developed into a standard tool in the polar expedition," Li said.
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