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Sci-Tech

Polar pros look to Cool Robot and new icebreaker

At an Arctic science summit, researchers get a look at some inventions that could help them better deal with the icy climes. Photos: A Cool Robot for polar duty

HANOVER, N.H.--The Cool Robot is square, squat and slow, but its utilitarian beauty is clear to polar researchers who want a sturdy nonhuman helper to carry instruments over vast stretches of the Arctic and Antarctic.

Basically a wheeled box covered with solar panels, the Cool Robot was among innovative technologies presented at an Arctic "science summit" on Wednesday, along with an ice-breaker ship that can whirl slowly around on sea ice and a standalone science station that looks like a giant picnic cooler.

"The Cool Robot concept was a robot that could deploy instrument networks in a vehicle that was very light," said Laura Ray, a professor at Dartmouth College and a participant in the summit.

The robot weighs about 130 pounds, runs quietly on solar power with a top speed of about 2 mph and navigates via GPS (Global Positioning System) technology, Ray said. Slow and steady, it can travel 310 miles in two weeks, with instruments loaded into its cubical body or towed on a sled.

It could make observations--like measuring the properties of snow as indicators of climate change--that are sometimes risky and expensive .

And that is the point. Ray said 70 percent to 85 percent of the budget for U.S. polar science programs pays for logistics. The use of a robot that provides its own power could help whittle that cost.

Presentations on the robot and other inventions were part of the Arctic Science Summit Week, which brought together scientists and policy makers from the Northern Hemisphere to consider global warming's impact on the polar regions.

The planned German also aims to make Arctic science safer. It is able to drill down through sea ice and water to collect 1,000-meter (3,280-foot) core samples of undersea sediments, said Nicole Biebow of the Alfred Wegener Institute.

The research vessel would have a twin hull to guard against spills, redundant main systems and a process that purifies emissions before sending them into the atmosphere. And in the unstable environment of sea ice, it can clear an area by turning around in place, without going forward or back.

Approved by the German Science Council but not yet built, the Aurora Borealis could have its first expedition in 2013, Biebow said.

On a smaller scale, researchers have used sophisticated buoys to measure the properties of Arctic sea ice since 1993, said Jackie Richter-Menge of the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

These tools, called autonomous ice mass balance buoys, can monitor how snow waxes and wanes, how ice grows and melts and what temperature it is on the inside of the ice, Richter-Menge said.

They are meant to last three years, but sometimes batteries fail, ice melts and the buoys' transmitters sink, and sometimes foxes and polar bears end the buoys' useful life, she said.

A standalone lab made out of custom-cut slabs of insulating foam has the look of a picnic cooler but has the potential to be a new kind of observing platform for parts of Antarctica, said Paul Riley of the University of New Hampshire.

The temperature-controlled enclosure for scientific instruments, powered by wind, has the capacity to acquire and transfer data, using a satellite modem, Riley said. It's called ARRO, or Autonomous Real-time Remote Observatory.