Meet the Scientists: Dr. James Lever

Meet the Scientists is an Armed with Science segment highlighting the men and women working in the government realms of science, technology, research and development.  The greatest minds working on the greatest developments of our time.  If you have someone you’d like AWS to highlight for this segment, email Jessica L. Tozer at

From left: Dr. James Lever with South Pole area manager Martin Lewis and Polar rover Yeti. It's cold 'round there.  (Photo Photo courtesy of Lynette Barna/Released)

From left: Dr. James Lever with South Pole area manager Martin Lewis and the aptly-named Polar rover Yeti. It’s cold down there. (Photo Photo courtesy of Lynette Barna/Released)

WHO: Dr. James Lever! Did his PhD work in Canada, at the McMaster University at Hamilton, Ontario. The Canadian mechanical engineer you want to know in a pinch, James specializes in snow-based robotics.

TITLE: Mechanical engineer for the US Army Corps of Engineers Research and Development Center, USACE ERDC, at the laboratory that specializes in cold regions research and engineering.

MISSION: Most of his career has been focused on issues that USACE or the nation encounters in cold conditions, winter conditions, and Polar Regions. Dr. Lever’s expertise is mainly in mobility over the snow, but he tells me he’s done a bunch of things over the course of that time with the Army Corps of Engineers as his interests have developed.

So tell me a little bit about yourself.

“I grew up in Canada, and I guess that qualified me to be an expert in cold regions. After I graduated I got involved in ocean engineering in the Canadian northeast coast where icebergs are involved as a hazard for offshore gas and oil exploration. Once I got involved in cold regions activity I got involved with our laboratory here, and got interested in the work and research here.”

What is your role in developing this robotic rover technology? What is the military using these for?

“Originally I got involved because a colleague here got me involved in a project regarding basic research and mobility. He asked me if I would be interested in looking at the very lightweight rovers that the Army is starting to consider for soldier-portable robots for use in theater. The Army has requirements for all vehicles, including their small robots, to be all-weather and all-terrain capable. So that means they should operate in winter, over snow, and do we know anything about that? Are you sure that they’re going to operate successfully? So I started looking into it and it got to be quite an interesting problem.”

What do you mean?

Snobot 2 with students in 2007. (Photo from Dr. James Lever/Released)

Snobot 2 with students in 2007. (Photo from Dr. James Lever/Released)

“We built a couple of robots. At the time I was a volunteer coach for a high school robotics team. I got some of the students to help me build a bunch of these robots for their summer projects. We tested them in the snow in the following winters. What we did then was publish the design guidance, so anyone could read what we learned and design a lightweight rover to work well over snow. If you don’t pay attention to those things, rovers get stuck very easily. Rovers that are very good in rubble and hard terrain, will get stuck with just a few inches of snow. But the solution’s not that difficult and if you pay attention to that you can make a very acceptable lightweight rover.”

So how did you go from high school robot class to building rovers for the US Antarctic and Artic programs?

“We do a fair bit of engineering R&D on behalf of those programs for the National Science Foundation, so the Corps of Engineers does a part for others where other government organizations can assess our expertise to make their operations more efficient. The needs are similar; to use robots, autonomous vehicles, to improve the reach in Antarctica or into Greenland, It allows [scientists] to do broader science without the same logistics cost that would come from bringing people up there.”

So I have a question. Do you call your rovers SNOBOTS?

“Yes! Yes indeed! The first ones we built were called Snobot One and Snobot Two. They look like old WWI tracked tanks. They have very low ground pressure. They’re very light and have wide tracks, so their ground pressure is about a quarter of a psi, which is even lower than skiis or snow shoes. For snow where it would be up to our knees or our waist if it was deep enough, these things will just float right over the top and drive like normal.”

What is the goal or the mission of these rovers for the Army Corps of Engineers and what do you hope it will achieve?

“The Army Corps of Engineers provides support for the fighting military as well as the civil works, and some of that involves mine detection, demining operations, etc. Autonomous vehicles are clearly valuable where you have these hazardous conditions. You want to keep soldiers away from these hazards as much as you can. In cases where it’s cold or there’s snow, those vehicles have to actually be mobile over the snow otherwise the mission fails.”

“It doesn’t help if the rovers get stuck out there because you’ve just eliminated the reason to have the rover do that job if you have to go fetch it. So focusing on the mobility was the main reason why I wanted to get involved.”

In your own words, what is it about this technology that makes it so significant?

“It’s sort of the opposite end of the spectrum in making it significant. We’re really tried to keep them simple and efficient. And there are reasons for that, technical reasons. Simplicity is important if you want things to operate in the cold. Keeping it simple is very important, also it’s a way of making systems more reliable but also less expensive, so you can have more of them. So our focus has been on how can you do this as efficiently and simply as possible.”

How would these help with military missions? Could they be used for reconnaissance or information gathering, for example?

“The typical goal or missions for rovers here is reconnaissance, the detection of mines, patrol for a base perimeter, etc. The Army is trying to substitute rovers for all the dull, dangerous and dirty missions. In any kind of winter environment you need those vehicles to operate reliably, otherwise they just fail. It’s more on those ends other than the heavy vehicle side where you might be doing convoys.”

“There’s an active program in the Army for automated convoys. Our role there might be to see if we could help with the autonomous operation and the vision systems and navigation in winter conditions where they’re a little bit more demanding than the typical environment.”

So what got you interested in this field of study? Did you wake up one day and say, ‘You know what Antarctica needs is robots. I should build those.’

“You know, I got asked to be involved with an Antarctic project and got interested in that in an independent context. It was to collect cosmic dust from micro-meteorites that fall on the snow surface in Antarctica.”

“They fall all over the Earth, but in Antarctica there’s really little terrain dust. There’s white snow, and so the cosmic dust that falls on the Earth is an important signal relative to the background. It’s easier to see it, but you need a way to concentrate them. So a colleague of mine, who ended up being my wife in the end, suggested that we collect the cosmic dust in the drinking water wells. So I built a rover to do that. That was my introduction to Polar robotics, if you like. That’s what got me hooked.”

How hard is it to make things like these robots, and what are some key benefits to having them do the ‘dirty work’, so to speak?

“So in general, what I’ve tried to do with my engineering career is, how can you support activities in these demanding environments well and inexpensively? Can you design vehicles, robots, to do these jobs very well but inexpensively. It’s akin to space missions but we don’t have the budget for it, but the logistics and safety concerns in these regions dominate costs. Keeping people safe and comfortable, getting them in and out, is what sucks up the majority of the science budget. 80% of it. So the remaining 20% of that is what you have left to do science. If we could make the operations and logistics more efficient than you can stretch these dollars to do more science.”

Other machines could learn from this science as well, I imagine.

“Yeah. Tires on snow, ice breakers, sliding against ice, that kind of thing.”

If you could go anywhere in time and space, where would you go and why?

“I’ve been interested in ancient engineers. I think I would go back to ancient Rome and append myself to the engineers of the day and find out how they did things. They did things so well and their structures were so permanent, they stood the test of time for centuries. Imagine what could you learn from people who were that skilled in those ages.”

Thanks to Dr. James Lever for contributing to this article, and for his contributions to the science and technological communities.


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Jessica L. Tozer
 is the editor and blogger for Armed with Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for science and technology in the military.

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