Northeastern Researchers Explore the Arctic With Robot to Learn How Fast Glaciers Are Melting

With limited time to capture data, scientists deployed robots to collect data from the front of glaciers for 3D models.

Pushyami Kaveti, Northeastern University

On a recent expedition to the Arctic, a group of Northeastern robotics researchers created 3D models of glaciers.
Northeastern University researchers are working to advance study of climate change by taking data collected by an autonomous surface vessel and building models of glacier activity.

Equipped with snow jackets, gloves, and luggage containing a host of cameras and sensors, Professor Hanumant Singh and a team of Northeastern University robotics researchers recently traveled to the Arctic with the goal of helping to address the climate crisis.

Using a robot boat, known as an autonomous surface vehicle (ASV), Singh’s team created 3D models of two glaciers to determine if they could track them melting in the span of hours and days. That timeframe will help shed new light on how fast they are dissolving, Singh noted.

In addition, the robot provided the researchers with the opportunity to map the front of the glaciers as opposed to the top, which is a view that is easily captured by satellites.

Capturing change at the top of the world

Singh’s team traveled to the northernmost Arctic field station in the world — the Ny-Alesund (79 degrees N) in Svalbard, Norway. There, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology provided the team with the robot boat, while Northeastern researchers supplied their own sensors and cameras.

Northeastern University researchers

Northeastern researchers Hanumant Singh, Michael Everett, David Rosen, and Pushyami Kaveti recently traveled to the Arctic to create 3D models of glaciers. Credit: Pushyami Kaveti

This is far from Singh’s first trip to the Arctic. He’s been there at least a dozen times and has done similar missions involving underwater robots and drones. While many roboticists focus on developing self-driving vehicles and other cutting-edge systems, Singh said he is focused on using robots to help solve environmental challenges.

“Yes, autonomous cars driving in Arizona and California are cool, but on a global scale, looking at climate change and how it’s affecting our planet is to me personally a more important problem,” he said. “The things we are doing in the Arctic are really trying to understand what is happening to our planet.”

This latest expedition included Singh, Prof. Michael Everett, Prof. David Rosen, and postdoctoral student Pushyami Kaveti, a researcher in Singh’s field robotics lab.

Their goal is to provide the findings to climate scientists for them to understand the changes that are occurring in that part of the world. Singh saud he and his team are still sifting through the data, and a paper on the group’s findings will likely be published within the next six months.

“People usually see change using satellites over the course of a few months,” Singh said. “We can definitely see over the course of a few years how these glaciers are receding. What we were really interested in is can we measure change in the order of hours and days?”

Scientists quickly map glaciers

The team created 3D maps of two glaciers — Kongsbreen and Blomstrandbreen. The team only had four days to complete the mapping. An expedition of this scale typically takes at least 10, Singh said.

Since the team was only there for a short time, they had to act fast and split viewing each glacier by day. At around 8:30 a.m. every day, it would head out to the water by boat, send the robot out, and spend the next few hours collecting data.

Then the researchers would head back to the station, eat lunch, and come back to collect more data.

“I am very, very happy and pleasantly surprised that we actually collected all this data,” Singh said. “Usually, if somebody told me that you only had four days on the station, I’d say, ‘You’re an idiot.’”

Kaveti helped develop the sensor suite that was placed on the robot while working in Northeastern’s field robotics lab. The suite consisted of two 12 megapixel RGB cameras, a lidar sensor, a GPS system, and an inertial measurement unit (IMU).

All those components working together allowed the team to get a clear picture of the glaciers, she said.

The Kongsbreen glacier was not actively breaking apart or “calving” while the team collected data, but Blomstrandbreen was. During visit to the glacier, Kaveti saw it calving seven or eight times.

“It’s hard to imagine the impact of something like this without actually being there,” Kaveti said. “Sitting in the university and going over articles or seeing a video of someone talking about it is very different than actually being there.”

Northeastern sensors

The Northeastern researchers brought along their own sensors and cameras to place on the robot. Credit: Pushyami Kaveti

Robots take a closer look

Kaveti said the robots have several benefits for this type of mission. For one, they allowed the researchers to get a closer look at the glaciers. Since chunks of ice are actively falling from the glaciers, it’s not safe for researchers to be near them.

Glacier calving

Northeastern teams took data for building 3D models of glaciers. Credit: Pushyami Kaveti

Rosen joined Northeastern University in fall 2021 and leads its autonomy lab, which uses math and algorithms to make autonomous systems more safe, reliable, and intelligent.

Everret joined the university in January and is helping lead a new lab focused on deploying machine learning systems that work reliably in real-world settings.

The trip served as an opportunity for the researchers to see firsthand how these robotic systems fared in some of the toughest environments where utilities, such as Wi-Fi, are unavailable.

“You really have to make sure that your equipment is ready to go, it’s well-tested, and it’s robust to these different environmental conditions,” Everett said.

Editor's note: Cesareo Contreras is now a Northeastern Global News reporter. This article is reposted with permission.

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About the Author

Cesareo Contreras's avatar
Cesareo Contreras
Cesareo Contreras was associate editor at Robotics 24/7. Prior to working at Peerless Media, he was an award-winning reporter at the Metrowest Daily News and Milford Daily News in Massachusetts. Contreras is a graduate of Framingham State University and has a keen interest in the human side of emerging technologies.
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Pushyami Kaveti, Northeastern University

On a recent expedition to the Arctic, a group of Northeastern robotics researchers created 3D models of glaciers.

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