A New Kind of Geologist

Meteorites are the only significant source of material from other planets and asteroids, and therefore are of immense scientific value. Antarctica's frozen and pristine environment has proven to be the best place on Earth to harvest meteorite specimens. Due to the lack of melting and surface erosion keep meteorite falls visible on the ice surface in pristine condition for thousands of years. Within this section we will describe the robotic technologies that enabled the first discovery of Antarctic meteorites by a robot. Using a novel autonomous control architecture, specialized science sensing, combined manipulation and visual servoing, and Bayesian classification; the Nomad robot found and classified five indigenous meteorites during an expedition to the remote site of Elephant Moraine in January of 2000. This section of the site overviews Nomad's mechatronic systems, and details the control architecture that governs the robot's autonomy and classifier that enables the autonomous interpretation of scientific data.

Nomad is an unique autonomous field robot with advanced control, perception and cognition of a planetary rover and the first robot to exhibit intelligence to explore an extreme polar environment and automatically classify indigenous rocks. It combines advanced mobility with hierarchical distributed control to safely navigate in unknown environments. Nomad is equipped with a sophisticated sensor payload that enables navigation and science. A laser rangefinder is used to detect obstacles and orientational (roll / pitch / yaw) sensors make the robot cognizant of potentially dangerous terrain. A high-resolution color camera detects and studies rock targets on the ice and snow. A manipulator arm places a visible-to-near-infrared reflection spectrometer within a centimeter of a rock face. For precision placement, a camera mounted on the manipulator's wrist allows the sensor deployment software to visually servo to a rock. Nomad runs safeguarded navigation ( path evaluation and driving) and science ( coordination and execution of search functions) autonomy as the two major software systems. These elements (both hardware and software) are explored with greater detail in this section's subsections.