Eindhoven University of Technology: TU Eindhoven students build ‘Antarctica rover’ for unmanned climate research at the South Pole

Antarctica can provide valuable insights into the consequences of climate change, but conducting research at the South Pole is expensive and not very sustainable. The ‘Antarctica rover’, an autonomous solar-powered vehicle, should make climate research on the coldest and most remote continent on earth cheaper, more sustainable and easier. The vehicle, inspired by the Mars rover that collects data in a similar, autonomous manner on planet Mars, is currently being developed by TU/e student team Polar. On 28 December, they will travel to the South Pole for a two-week period to collect the data needed for the construction of the vehicle.

Team Polar – consisting of 17 students from various fields of study – aims to have their first moving prototype ready next year. The vehicle will run on built-in solar panels, while sensors must ensure that the vehicle can drive from point A to B without human intervention.

The extreme weather conditions at the South Pole require a pioneering approach from the team. “The intensity of the sun is extremely low, as is the temperature. Solar panels and batteries tend to perform poorly in these conditions, so we are looking for ways to make the system more weather-resistant. Also, the white landscape and lack of reference points creates a challenge for autonomous driving,” explains team manager Ewout Hulscher from team Polar.

Oscar Mannens (left) and Ewout Hulscher will travel to the South Pole for research. Photo: Rien Boonstoppel
For the development of the vehicle, it is important that the team maps out the local conditions. That is why Hulscher and teammate Oscar Mannens (technical manager) will leave for Antarctica on 28 December for a two week trip. They will travel with expedition leader Florence Kuyper and the Commandant Charcot, a new polar exploration ship from the French company Ponant that specialises in expeditions to the poles. The ship is equipped with facilities for researchers.

Hulscher: “This is the first hybrid-electric polar exploration ship, and it is powered by natural gas. They are committed to sustainability and that message is in line with ours, which is why we have been allowed to go on board. We will be collecting data that will help us develop our solar panels, such as light intensity and power output. We will also take equipment with us to measure humidity, air pressure, the solar spectrum and temperatures.”

Currently, research in Antarctica is expensive and unsustainable. It requires research stations and large trucks, for which fuel has to be brought in by air. The Dutch government’s aim is to make research in the polar regions as sustainable as possible.

Team Polar wants to have their first moving prototype ready in 2022. Photo: Team Polar
“That means no stations of our own and as little human presence as possible,” explains Dick van der Kroef, director of the Netherlands Polar Programme, which funds scientific research in and to the polar regions on behalf of the government. According to him, team Polar’s ambitious project fits in perfectly with the Dutch vision of doing research in Antarctica with as little human impact as possible.

He thinks that in the future the Antarctic rover will be able to provide important data that is not yet available. For example, for research areas such as glaciology and meteorology, fields that are concerned with climate change. Van der Kroef: “The next ten years will be decisive for how the climate develops; will we remain within the one and a half degree warming or will it be three degrees? It is precisely during this decisive period that we want to have the best data available.”

In this way, Team Polar hopes that more sustainable scientific research can take place on the South Pole in the future. The idea for a solar car came from mountaineer and polar explorer Wilco van Rooijen, alumnus of Technology and Society at TU/e. Technical manager Mannens: “We believe that mankind should damage the last unexplored continent as little as possible. It’s a big challenge, but we want to help.”