The Robotics Institute
RI | Seminar | October 17

Robotics Institute Seminar, October 17
Time and Place | Seminar Abstract | Speaker Biography | Speaker Appointments

Robotic Astrobiology: Robotics Experiments and Scientific Investigation of Life in the Atacama Desert

David Wettergreen
CMU Robotics Institute

Time and Place

Mauldin Auditorium (NSH 1305)
Refreshments 3:15 pm
Talk 3:30 pm


Astrobiology is the study of the living universe and it addresses the realization that the origin and evolution of life itself cannot be understood unless it is examined in all the environments in which life might exist, including those beyond our own planet.

The Chilean Atacama Desert is the most arid region on Earth and in several ways the most analogous to Mars. Evidence suggests that the interior of the Atacama is lifeless, yet where the desert meets the Pacific coastal range desiccation-tolerant micro-organisms are known to exist. The gradient of biodiversity and habitats in the Atacama's subregions remain unexplored and are the focus of the Life in the Atacama project.

Our field investigation is bringing new scientific understanding of the Atacama as a habitat for life through the creation of robotic astrobiology. This involves capabilities for autonomously traversing hundreds of kilometers while deploying sensors to survey the varying geologic and biologic properties of the environment. Our goal is to make genuine discoveries about the limits of life on Earth and to generate knowledge about life in extreme environments that can be applied to future planetary missions.

In this talk I will motivate the Life in the Atacama project from both astrobiologic and robotic perspectives. I will focus on some of the research challenges we are facing to enable endurance navigation, resource cognizance, and long-term survivability. Our project conducted first scientific investigation and technical experiments in Chile in April 2003 with the mobile robot Hyperion. I will describe the experiments and the results of our analysis. These results give us insight into the design of an effective robotic astrobiologist and into the methods by which we will conduct scientific investigation in the coming years.

Speaker Biography

Dr. David Wettergreen is a Research Scientist at the Robotics Institute and is leading the Life in the Atacama investigation. The focus of Dr. Wettergreen's research is robotic exploration. For more than a decade, through research with robots including Ambler, Dante, Marsokhod, Nomad, and Kambara, he has worked toward increasing complexity, robustness and autonomy in robotic explorers. His work spans concept formulation through to field experimentation and advances the necessary ingredients of perception, planning, learning, execution and control. He has proven concepts and tested technologies in relevant environments around the globe. Dr. Wettergreen's most recent work in robotic exploration involves the creation of Hyperion, a solar-powered rover used to demonstrate sun-synchronous navigation in the Canadian high arctic and in initial experiments in astrobiology in the Chilean Atacama Desert. Dr. Wettergreen was a Research Fellow at the Australian National University from 1998-2000 and an NRC Research Associate at NASA Ames Research Center from 1996-97. He received his Ph.D. in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon in 1995.

Speaker Appointments


The Robotics Institute is part of the School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University.