July 4, 2001 A new robotic explorer, smart enough to know when it's lost or in trouble and designed to follow the Sun in a whole new way, is ready to face its first test in the harsh elements of the Canadian Arctic.
The prototype robot, named Hyperion, has the potential to be self-sufficient and will help researchers test a technique called Sun-synchronous navigation.
Sun-synchronous navigation involves tracking the Sun while exploring terrain. If Hyperion is successful, future autonomous robots could obtain continuous solar power for long-term exploration of distant planets and moons.
The robot must know its position and orientation with respect to the Sun while it explores its surroundings. It navigates to capture enough sunlight to power itself while traveling through rough terrain and trying to reach important scientific objectives.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute, Pittsburgh, PA, with support from NASA developed Hyperion, named for a Titan of Greek mythology who fathered the Sun, moon and the dawn. The word Hyperion roughly translates to "he who follows the Sun."
"Near the poles of the moon, the idea is for a robot to move with the dawn, and always remain in sunlight as it explores its environment," said Robotics Institute Research Scientist David Wettergreen, a co-investigator on the project. The robot represents the latest in a series of terrestrial testbeds for planetary explorers the Institute has developed for the agency in a relationship that spans more than a decade.
The field experiments with Hyperion will take place in Nunavut, Canada, on the hilly, rock-strewn terrain of Devon Island, the largest uninhabited island in the world. There is a narrow window, between July 10 and July 20, to conduct the experiments.
Researchers believe that at the right latitude and speed, robotic explorers should get enough sunlight to maintain continuous operation. For some missions, by following the dawn, these rovers may also be able to regulate their temperatures by staying in the transition region between frigid night and scorching daytime temperatures. They would travel with the sunrise and never have to hibernate overnight.
"The reasons for developing Sun-synchronous rovers are twofold: capability and reliability," said Melvin Montemerlo, NASA program executive, Office of Space Science, Washington, DC. "Since they're always in sunlight, they never have to go into a sleep mode and there's a greater science return for the dollar. Secondly, you don't have to power down at night so you don't have to worry about making it through a cold night and about powering up again when the sunlight returns in the morning."
"Sun-synchronous navigation would enable robots to undertake missions of months or years. To travel vast distances on the moon or Mars is what is called for to make the revolutionary discoveries," said principal investigator William L. "Red" Whittaker, Carnegie Mellon's Fredkin research professor and a pioneer in the development of mobile robots.
Hyperion is 2 meters long, 2 meters wide and almost 3 meters tall, with a near vertically mounted solar panel measuring 3.5 square meters. It carries this panel mounted upright to catch the low-angle sunlight of the Polar Regions.
Hyperion operates on about 200 watts of power. It is fabricated of aluminum tubing and has four wheels on two axles. On the front axle, a frame supports stereo cameras and a laser scanner. All of Hyperion's computers, electronics and batteries are mounted in a body enclosure between the axles. The robot weighs 156 kilograms, or nearly 345 pounds. Wettergreen said Hyperion has enough intelligence to know when there's a problem and can send a message to human operators to ask for help.
Hyperion is a concept vehicle designed to operate only on Earth. Robots designed for flight missions would require specialized components, such as space-qualified motors and computers.
Wettergreen will lead the field experiment with six colleagues. The team intends to produce status reports, images and online movies throughout the field experiment. More information about Hyperion and the Sun-Synchronous Navigation Project can be found at:
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