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Lake Imja. Jeff Kargel photo

Robots Versus the Killer Glacier

Scientists used a radio-controlled toy boat to research deadly mountain floods

David Axe
David Axe
Aug 21, 2013 · 3 min read

In 2009 a team of scientists and their Sherpa guides alternately helicoptered and hiked 16,500 feet up to an isolated Himalayan lake. Their mission: to painstakingly map the volatile, glacier-fed Lake Imja above and below the surface in order to understand whether, and when, it might burst its shore and rush downhill, potentially wiping out downstream villages.

It was a lifesaving job a robot could maybe do better. And soon did.

So-called glacier lake outburst floods — GLOFs, for short — frequently surge down the Himalayas’ mountain valleys with devastating results. “Nepal has experienced 24 GLOF events in the recent past, several of which have caused considerable damage and loss of life,” the World Bank reported.

A GLOF originating in the Dig Tsho glacial lake in Nepal in 1985—notorious even by the standards of these destructive events—smashed apart a nearly complete hydroelectric dam and damaged many downstream villages. One Sherpa named Apa said that flood wiped out half of his land.

GLOFs could get a lot more frequent and dangerous as climate change accelerates glacier melt, according to Mark Patterson, the vice president of research at Hydronalix, an Arizona-based robotics firm.

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The scientists try and fail to get the boat’s motor to work on Lake Imja in 2009.ICIMOD photo

Patterson’s colleague Jeff Kargel from the University of Arizona was on the 2009 expedition to Imja along with several researchers from the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development and other groups.

Largely funded by the World Bank, the team hauled a rigid-hull inflatable motorboat up the glacier. But at nearly 17,000 feet elevation, the boat’s motor didn’t work and the team ended up paddling the lake perimeter.

It could have been worse. Two Japanese expeditioners — one scientist and a journalist — actually died on earlier research trips to the same area after failing to acclimatize properly.

The danger is never far from Patterson and Kargel’s minds. But they still need to climb that mountain and gather that vital data. A full square kilometer in area, Imja is one of the biggest and most temperamental glacial lakes. The Guardian described it as a “climate disaster waiting to happen.” The research must go on.

And that’s where robots come in. “We decided unmanned platforms would be better,” Patterson said at a Washington, D.C. robotics conference in mid-August.

When the team returned to Imja in 2010, their Sherpa hauled on their backs one of Hydronalix’s four-foot-long radio-controlled toy boats—Unmanned Surface Vehicle is the fancy term—plus a $5,000, commercial sonar and other gear.

“We had to keep the USV simple because of export issues,” noted Patterson, who accompanied the team into Nepal in 2010. U.S. regulations tightly control the dissemination of homegrown robotics technology.

The researchers strapped the sensor to the boat and sent the simple remote vehicle cruising around the lake, the sonar steadily pinging. Retrieving the ‘bot, the scientists relayed the data off the mountain using a hardened wi-fi station previously installed by ICIMOD and other groups.

The idea was to plug the data into computer models originally developed for predicting the dynamics of tsunamis and “see which bits [of the lake] are moving quickly,” Patterson said. That could help scientists predict GLOFs and warn downstream residents.

Kargel returned to Lake Imja this summer and additional missions are planned, including one this fall. Ideally, the ventures will become more robotic, Patterson said, with tough little machines taking the place of flesh-and-blood people for whom this kind of lifesaving science can be lethal.

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