Northeastern professor Hanu Singh’s robots do what human researchers can’t, or what they ought not to, like getting really close to massive glaciers.
“You don't want a human being there, because if a chunk of ice the size of a building suddenly falls off, you know, bad things happen,” the robotics expert told GBH’s Morning Edition Thursday.
Singh has collaborated with researchers who want to learn more about how glaciers change over a short period of time — things that can't be observed remotely via satellite imagery. That's where his robotic boats come into play.
“One way of looking at robots is saying, ‘Hey, they’re doing the stuff that’s dull, dirty and dangerous.’”
On Singh's most recent expedition, to glaciers at the edge of the water near the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, he was collecting data on how glaciers melt over the course of hours, not months.
“They were very interested in making measurements right at the edge of calving glaciers,” Singh said. “A lot of [scientists] are interested in seeing how things change on an hourly or a daily basis because they want to see what is the effect of the solar installation, what's the effect of tides, how is that really mattering?”
His robot boats take precise measurements on the surfaces of Arctic glaciers, a job that is both dangerous and tedious.
“Things don't change very dramatically over the course of hours,” he said, “so you have to have very precise and repeatable measurements.”
Perhaps not the best-suited job for humans, he said, but not a bad one for a robot.
“One way of looking at robots is saying, 'Hey, they're doing the stuff that's dull, dirty and dangerous,'” Singh said. “There are applications where it really makes a difference that we use these robots. And it goes not just for climate change, whether it's in medical robots where we can be much more efficient or on autonomous cars, where we can take some of the tedium off.”
Singh's research has sent him across the world. But he said the Arctic and Antarctic are particularly special to him.
“Once you've been there, it's the most beautiful part of this planet. And you want to go back,” he said. “And it's kind of sad that, with climate change, you can see changes happening right in front of your eyes.”