It’s tricky for satellites to identify icebergs, and almost impossible to accurately predict the level of risk they present. Drifting clouds can make it difficult to see the movements of sea ice as well as the underwater shape of the icebergs that determines their movement and whether they are a threat. This is why ships moving off Newfoundland’s Grand Banks and the coast of Labrador are asked to report their position and ice observation to Ice St. John’s every six hours. The danger that icebergs represent to both shipping and to the underwater cables that traverse the ocean floors is very real. But one of the goals of the newly formed NSERC Canadian Field Robotics Network (NCFRN), led by McGill University Computer Science professor Gregory Dudek, is to find ways to solve this problem by using robots to monitor both the above ground and underwater dimensions of icebergs. This is just one of many applications made possible by this network, which will develop robotic tools that will not only enhance our ability to measure and understand the Canadian environment, but will advance planetary exploration as well.
Applications range from environmental monitoring around Canada’s extensive coastlines – including in the far North, where harsh conditions make human research complicated and costly – to mining and resource identification, planetary exploration, pipeline monitoring, border surveillance, search and rescue, and even dealing with environmental disasters such as nuclear accidents. Smart wheelchairs, with voice activated control and arms that can grasp objects, are also in development and rely on similar technologies to identify objects and navigate through space. In addition, the network will train students who can bring elements of robotics technologies to many industries that are not currently using robots.
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