Just a few short weeks after China successfully landed its Zhurong Rover on the surface of Mars, researchers have deployed a similar rover to explore the inhospitable terrain on the ‘Roof of the World’, the Tibetan Plateau.
The car-sized rover, named Pandengzhe or ‘The Climber’, spent five days on the icy Kuoqionggangri Glacier, at 18 000 feet or 5 500 metres above sea level, the first robot to do so, according to the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Armed with a specialised toolkit of meteorological instruments, The Climber was tasked with collecting data about the surrounding weather patterns, the geology of the glacier and the environment nearby.
Representatives at academy say that drones, rovers and robots may be the future of exploration in areas like the Kuoqionggangri Glacier, which can be extremely dangerous.
One Chinese explorer and scientist, who asked to remain anonymous while speaking to the South China Morning Post, said rovers and robots similar to The Climber were potentially life-saving. The veteran of many climbs likened operating in the sub-freezing conditions at high altitude and heavy snowfalls to “killing grounds”.
He said that numerous lives had been lost in the mountainous plateau during research missions, recalling that even motor vehicles had fallen victim to the harsh conditions.
Scientists are hopeful that The Climber may provide valuable data on climate change, the rate of glacial melts, as well as monitor the massive pockets of methane gas trapped underneath the Tibetan permafrost.
Researchers are concerned that with average temperatures across the planet on the rise, the dangerous greenhouse gases lying dormant under the permafrost may be released into the atmosphere. This would result in devastating damage to an already damaged ozone layer.
Project leader, He Yuqing, said that The Climber’s sophisticated AI system allows the robot to navigate the tricky environment around it.
Able to detect small gaps and crevices beneath the surface of the ice, it can plan its route with care. Because the tyres can adjust their shape quickly, it allows the robot to move from rocky, steep surfaces onto slick, snow-covered paths with relative ease.
The Climber is part of a $2 million project funded by Beijing in 2018. It is expected that more robotic rovers will take over the precarious jobs once completed by humans.