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Monday, 25 June, 2001, 21:07 GMT 22:07 UK
Brainy robot gets Arctic test-drive
Solar-powered robot Robotics Institute
The robot tracks the Sun while exploring new terrain
By BBC News Online's Helen Briggs

The prototype of a new generation of robots designed to explore distant planets will be tested for the first time in the Arctic next month.

The solar-powered machine is capable of making its way across uncharted territory while tracking the path of the Sun. It can even call for human assistance if it gets lost.

The idea is for a robot to move with the dawn, and always remain in sunlight as it explores its environment

David Wettergreen, Robotics Institute
Such features would prove invaluable for exploring polar regions of planets, such as Mars, and the Moon.

The robot will be test-driven in a Mars-like environment - the rocky, icy terrain of Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic.

Researchers at the Robotics Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, US, developed the robot, with support from the American space agency Nasa.

Sun god

It is known as Hyperion after the Titan in Greek mythology who fathered the Sun, the Moon and dawn.

The robot works out its position and orientation with respect to the Sun, while exploring its surroundings.

Hyperion factfile
Dimensions: 2 metres long, 2 metres wide and almost 3 metres tall
Power: Vertically mounted solar panel measuring 3.5 square metres
Orientation: It carries this panel mounted upright to catch the low-angle sunlight of the polar regions
Robotics Institute research scientist David Wettergreen, a co-investigator on the project, said: "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.

"In northern Canada, Hyperion will explore in a circular pattern as the Sun circles the sky. Robots could employ a similar strategy in the polar region of Mars."

Hyperion is programmed to sense new terrain, avoid obstacles and even send a message to human operators to ask for help.

"We're trying to create robots with more and more intelligence," Dr Wettergreen told BBC News Online. "By more intelligence, I mean they are able to reason about where they need to go and what they need to do to get there."

'Revolutionary discoveries'

Scientists hope the machine will pave the way for a new generation of robots for missions in outer space.

"Sun-synchronous navigation would enable robots to undertake missions of months or years," said principal investigator William Whittaker of Carnegie Mellon University.

"To travel vast distances on the Moon or Mars is what is called for to make the revolutionary discoveries. The trend is also to explore ever more difficult terrain where scientific information is richest."

Several weeks of experiments on Hyperion are planned for mid-July on Devon Island, when the snow melts and the Sun drops.

The Carnegie Mellon team intends to produce status reports, images and online movies throughout the field trial.

Although no place on this planet is truly like Mars, the island's cold desert environment is regarded as the closest on Earth to what would be encountered on the Red Planet.

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