Visual arctic navigation: techniques for autonomous agents in glacial environments

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Williams, Stephen Vincent
Howard, Ayanna M.
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Arctic regions are thought to be more sensitive to climate change fluctuations, making weather data from these regions more valuable for climate modeling. Scientists have expressed an interest in deploying a robotic sensor network in these areas, minimizing the exposure of human researchers to the harsh environment, while allowing dense, targeted data collection to commence. For any such robotic system to be successful, a certain set of base navigational functionality must be developed. Further, these navigational algorithms must rely on the types of low-cost sensors that would be viable for use in a multi-agent system. A set of vision-based processing techniques have been proposed, which augment current robotic technologies for use in glacial terrains. Specifically, algorithms for estimating terrain traversability, robot localization, and terrain reconstruction have been developed which use data collected exclusively from a single camera and other low-cost robotic sensors. For traversability assessment, a custom algorithm was developed that uses local scale surface texture to estimate the terrain slope. Additionally, a horizon line estimation system has been proposed that is capable of coping with low-contrast, ambiguous horizons. For localization, a monocular simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) filter has been fused with consumer-grade GPS measurements to produce full robot pose estimates that do not drift over long traverses. Finally, a terrain reconstruction methodology has been proposed that uses a Gaussian process framework to incorporate sparse SLAM landmarks with dense slope estimates to produce a single, consistent terrain model. These algorithms have been tested within a custom glacial terrain computer simulation and against multiple data sets acquired during glacial field trials. The results of these tests indicate that vision is a viable sensing modality for autonomous glacial robotics, despite the obvious challenges presented by low-contrast glacial scenery. The findings of this work are discussed within the context of the larger arctic sensor network project, and a direction for future work is recommended.
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