Nomad finds the first meteorite

In Antarctica, an autonomous robotic vehicle intended for remote planetary exploration is tested

Nomad, the autonomous robotic vehicle from the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, which was developed with funding from NASA, has been driving for 10 days. January around Antarctica in search of meteorites. Last Saturday, the third day of the mission, the scientists already had a success to report: with rough probability Nomad has already found the first one.

Nomad, which looks a bit like a Beetle, is a prototype for robots that could once be used for remote sensing missions on other planets. The robot is 2.4 x 2.4 x 2.4 meters, weighs 725 kilograms, moves on four wheels at a speed of 50 centimeters per second and can pass over rough obstacles. Because of its coarseness, all four computers can be placed on it, enabling its autonomy. For the first time, a robot is now on the road to automatically track rocks from space and classify them with the instruments in its robotic arm. In the field in eastern Antarctica, scientists have already discovered more than 2,000 stones on Fubmarsch in seven years, including EET79001, which is believed to have come from Mars: "Until now, exploration robots have taken pictures, collected data, and brought back what they saw to scientists so they could make investigations and decisions", Says Red Whittacker, project leader. "This time Nomad will make his own assessments and conclusions about the stones he encounters."

Nomad starts its autonomous search when it receives a command from the scientists and usually explores an area of about 1000 square meters every day according to a previously entered pattern. To navigate and avoid obstacles, it checks the given path and drives around objects that might be dangerous for it. With two stereo cameras the environment can be perceived and the dark stone against the light background of the snow can be recognized. If he encounters an interesting object, a high resolution camera with a zoom and a spectrometer are used to determine from the reflected light what it is made of and whether it could be a meteorite. A detector analyzes if the stone contains traces of iron. If Nomad identifies a meteorite, it sends its exact position to the scientists using GPS coordinates.

Image from the meteorite of the camera located on Nomad

Nomad decides on his own which stones to examine more closely and in which order, when to drive or when to use his arm. According to Whittacker, the important innovations in Nomad’s AI system are self-classification and search. In his fourth test, in which for the first time he was not only able to drive on his own, he has now identified the first stone with 22 percent probability as a meteorite after three days, seven others were recognized by him as stones from the earth. If he should find and identify further meteorites, the reliability is to become more coarse by learning. A day earlier, the scientists had placed an iron-bearing meteorite in the search area for calibration, which Nomad’s classification system had identified as a meteorite with a 27 percent probability. However, although Nomad explores his surroundings autonomously, he is still accompanied by the team of scientists, who had already discovered the stone before the robotic vehicle.

Nomad’s Antarctic mission can be followed from the Big Signal Project website. The aim is for schools to use the mission as an opportunity for online instruction. On a window you can see the images from the cameras and the data from the sensors in real time. The MIssion will continue until 30. January. Nomad’s test trip to the Chilean Atacama Desert in 1997 took place under the eyes of the web public at about the same time as Pathfinder on Mars was an internet success for NASA. At that time Nomad drove 200 kilometers by itself with success. Wusts or landscapes like those of Antarctica are also chosen because they approximate the conditions for missions to the Moon or Mars.