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Scientists in Heaven at Dante’s Return From Volcano ‘Hell’ : Research: The robotic test in Alaska proved invaluable. Technology could be used on space missions.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Wearing a red flannel shirt, faded jeans and work boots, robot scientist John Bares was riding a helicopter bound for Spurr volcano when the bad news was yelled into his left ear.

An umbilical cord that carried power to the Dante II robot--a $1.7-million project that consumed a year of Bares’ life--had snapped while a military helicopter tried lifting Dante from a bed of rocks 400 feet inside the crater.

The fall Aug. 5 sent the robot tumbling deeper into Spurr’s steamy pit. Worse, one of Bares’ colleagues needed a medical airlift after breaking a leg in a fall on the volcano’s rim.

An Army National Guardsman called out a message from the cockpit: “Do you want to turn back?”

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Overhead, the chopper blades whirred. The green, forested hills passed 4,000 feet below. For a long moment, Bares, 31, sat silent.

Turn back? After television viewers nationwide watched his eight-legged machine spider-walk its way into robotics history, traveling nearly 700 feet and operating longer than imagined from the innards of an active volcano?

Turn back? After the machine’s computer, communications, power and video systems had all worked without a hitch, after Dante’s rotating laser had sent back the first map of Spurr’s interior?

No.

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Bares signaled for the pilots to press on.

Plans to fetch Dante began when the 1,700-pound machine, picking its way back up from the crater floor, stumbled after hitting a 30-degree slope of sloppy mud. The treacherous terrain was unexpected, scientists said. Only a week earlier, it had been covered in snow that made walking easy.

“I can understand how a lay person might say it wasn’t a complete success because the robot didn’t come back,” said David Pahnous, director of a National Aeronautics and Space Administration consortium at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University. Dante II was developed for NASA by Carnegie Mellon to explore how robots could explore planetary surfaces.

“True, they didn’t see C-3PO and R2D2, but this isn’t the movies,” Pahnous said, referring to the “Star Wars” robots. “What they did see was the most advanced robotics technology today.”

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Among Dante’s feats:

* Remaining inside Spurr, a rockfall-prone volcano 80 miles west of Anchorage, for seven days, more than twice what was planned. The robot was under remote control for part of the time and took other steps on its own.

* Maneuvering across ash-strewn terrain that gave way under foot. Pahnous said the robot had been tested on gravel heaps, but hadn’t walked before on a pliable landscape.

* Demonstrating new computer software and laser applications that relayed three-dimensional images and topographic maps, both the first of their kind from inside a volcano.

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Pahnous says that, for comparison, he likes to think back 20 years to probes that were dropped over Venus. The devices operated just seconds before being destroyed.

“Dante proved you could send a machine into very, very harsh conditions and get a week’s worth of excellent data,” Pahnous said. “That’s what we wanted to find out. That’s what planetary exploration is about.”

The space agency said technology that proved itself in Spurr probably would be installed on future space missions. A robot explorer to Mars is planned as soon as 1996, NASA says.

Dante was damaged, but scientists are undaunted: A robot’s tumble--like a toddler’s first faltering step--is just one step on progress’s path, researchers say.

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Once Dante arrives back at Carnegie Mellon this month, scientists may try fixing it in preparation for another volcano climb that has yet to be funded. They could salvage parts for another machine. Or they could do nothing, and install Dante in the laboratory rafters to inspire the next generation.

With a spotter on the rim to call out warnings of falling boulders, Bares, the Carnegie Mellon scientist in charge in Anchorage, descended into the crater Aug. 13 with a rigger who affixed helicopter slings on Dante.

The machine was hoisted out that day.

Bares, who wore a helmet for the mission, said he was unafraid while working an hour or so in the volcano.

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There was only one rockfall, a minor one, that morning and the team emerged without incident.

Slides that pop like gunshots and upend rocks three feet wide are a constant hazard at Spurr. Avalanches of ash and boulders have kept researchers out of the volcano since it erupted in 1992.

In fact, Dante was dinged a few times after it walked into the crater July 29. Once, it narrowly missed being crushed.

There was always a chance that Dante wouldn’t come back, said David Lavery, manager of NASA’s telerobotics program.

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Lavery, who says he got out his dancing shoes when the Erector-set-like robot reached Spurr’s crater floor Aug. 1, says mission success was never defined as a round-trip walk.

An attempt Aug. 9 to lift the robot by its tether was a delicate move--bold, too, since tension could have sent a snapped cable straight up into the helicopter’s blades.

The retrieval mission was called off that sunny afternoon. The day before, an airlift was aborted because of clouds. Bares acknowledged that delay was starting to make his team weary.

But for Bares, a natural optimist, just glimpsing the stalled robot while flying low over the steamy crater was a lift. “The first thing I felt was, I’m still pretty impressed with what the machine did.”

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After Dante’s Kevlar-reinforced tether broke, Bares took a day to complete thoughts begun on the helicopter ride to Spurr.

He got some rest, talked to NASA and called Pittsburgh to trade ideas with university colleague William (Red) Whittaker. Renowned among robot-builders, Whittaker designed the machine that cleaned up the Three Mile Island reactor after a near-meltdown 15 years ago.

They decided against abandoning Dante.

“People and things get knocked down in life,” said Whittaker, a former amateur boxer. “I’ve had a great education out of getting floored.

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“So often, even in a research community, there is a lot of risk-aversion. But if you have a situation where success begets success, where nothing ever goes wrong--I’m not sure that’s what the world is about.”


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