The Environmentally Non-Disturbing Under-ice Robotic Antarctic Explorer (ENDURANCE) is an autonomous underwater vehicle designed to swim untethered under ice, creating three-dimensional maps of underwater environments.

Stone Aerospace Logistics Manager Vickie Siegel prepares to install a high-definition digital camera in the ENDURANCE robot.
Photo Credit: Henry Bortman

The probe also will collect data on environmental conditions and take samples of microbial life. Researchers have gathered this week in Madison, Wisconsin to test the probe under ice. They plan to test the probe in a permanently frozen lake in Antarctica later this year.

Astrobiology Magazine’s Henry Bortman reports on the probe’s progress in the field.

Madison, Wisconsin
Field Notes – February 14, 2008

On its third day of field testing, ENDURANCE once again spent the better part of the day in the repair shop, this time getting SONAR sensors and a new high-definition digital camera installed. Both of these devices will be part of the robot’s science-collection package when it travels to Antarctica later this year to explore Lake Bonney.

The SONAR array is designed to provide detailed information about the bottom of this ice-covered lake. One of ENDURANCE’s science goals is to create a 3-D map of the lake bottom. The camera will provide visual images of the lake bottom, and of the underwater face of Taylor Glacier, which forms the western boundary of Lake Bonney.

By the time the ENDURANCE team got the robot ready for its daily swim in Lake Mendota, it was late afternoon and it had begun snowing. The snow wasn’t much of a problem for the robot, but it made the work a bit more challenging for the humans. Because of the late start, the ENDURANCE team worked past sunset, using floodlights to illuminate the field site.

ENDURANCE prepares for a night dive in Madison, Wisconsin’s Lake Mendota.
Photo Credit: Henry Bortman

The engineers in charge of operating ENDURANCE and monitoring its performance were hoping to send it on an autonomous mission today, but that turned out not to be possible. Instead they had to operate it manually (which, by the way, they do with a standard off-the-shelf gaming joystick). For the robot to navigate autonomously, it has to be able to accurately calculate its position. But the lake is so shallow close to shore that some of the robot’s positioning sensors couldn’t do their job. It’s like trying to take a picture of something that’s too close for the lens to focus on – it comes out blurry. So the autonomous run will have to wait until another attempt can be made on Friday (tomorrow).

The camera had problems, too. Even before the sun went down, as soon as the robot slipped under the ice, it got too dark to see anything, so the engineers in “mission control” – a conference room in the University of Wisconsin Limnology building connected to the robot by a long green fiber-optic cable – ended up watching a lot of high-definition blackness. Before ENDURANCE explores Lake Bonney, it will most likely be outfitted with floodlights.

Read the February 13th field notes.
Read the February 15th field notes.

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