A barren island above the Arctic Circle is the destination this week of a 20-member research team from NASA, Carnegie Mellon University and other institutions. But it might as well be Mars.

At least, that's the idea.Devon Island - and particularly the 12-mile-wide Haughton crater gouged out of the polar desert by a meteorite 23 million years ago - in many ways resembles the surface of Mars.

It's cold, dry, windy, rocky and barren.

As the National Aeronautics and Space Administration moves clos-er to the day when it will send explorers to Mars, scientists are looking for places on Earth where they can test their instruments and vehicles and double-check their plans for Martian missions.

Based on a preliminary scouting visit to Devon Island last summer, "this is exactly the kind of setting where you'd like to go on Mars . . . to look for signs of early life," said Pascal Lee, the project leader from NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

Carnegie Mellon is providing a number of instruments for the Haughton-Mars Expedition, most notably a robotic helicopter that will be used to map and explore the crater and its environs.

NASA officials were intrigued by the robocopter after seeing it demonstrated during a Pittsburgh visit several months ago. Lee thinks the 160-pound drone can produce accurate maps of the area at low cost and with little risk. It will also serve as a scout, transmitting video back to the researchers as they decide where to go on the island.

The results might also demonstrate a need to develop aerial robots, perhaps a blimp, for Martian exploration, he added.

Systems scientist Omead Amidi understands NASA's interest in Mars-like landscapes but, for him, the decision to take the chopper to Canada's Northwest Territories was a simpler matter.

"Frankly," he said, "we'd just like to do something useful with it."

Though the autonomous helicopter is the brainchild of Takeo Kanade, director of Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute, Amidi has shepherded the project since it began in 1991 as the subject of his doctoral thesis.

He began with tethered models flown in a basement laboratory and graduated to a sleek, 14-foot-long Yamaha drone. Flying the 12-horsepower craft at a Penn-syl-vania farm and, later, at the Bushy Run Research Center, Amidi and his colleagues figured out how the helicopter could launch and land itself and, using Global Positioning System satellites and down-looking video cameras, maneuver itself and track objects.

It is still an answer in search of a problem, however. Amidi and Kanade have proposed using the self-piloting craft for search-and-rescue missions, military reconnaissance, firefighting, traffic monitoring and motion picture production.

The chopper seems well-suited for the aerial mapping it will try to perform at Devon Island, Amidi said. Conventional methods involve aircraft fitted with expensive cameras and sophisticated optics. The unmanned helicopter can fly low to the ground, however, eliminating the need for expensive lenses. From a height of 25 feet, on-board video and a laser range-finder are sufficient to capture the detail needed for three-dimensional maps, he said.

"NASA's not expecting anything but a videotape of the site," Amidi said, "but we want more than that."

He and the four other Carnegie Mellon scientists are not necessarily thrilled about their destination, however. Though the sun will shine for all but 40 minutes of each day, summer in the high arctic means temperatures hovering near freezing and winds of 40 mph.

"None of us are real camping guys," Amidi said, though all will be sharing tents in the base camp on a terrace of the Haughton River. "We've been thinking a lot about polar bears."

In addition to the robocopter, Carnegie Mellon will be providing a ground-penetrating radar system and a field spectrometer for geological studies. Both instruments are being used in another Carnegie Mellon project - the robotic search for meteorites in Antarctica.

They also will field a panospheric camera that produces panoramic, 360-degree video images.

The expedition is a joint project of NASA, the National Research Council, the National Geographic Society, the Geological Survey of Canada, Carnegie Mellon and other research institutions.

Amidi cautioned that there was no guarantee that the robocopter would be able to accomplish its mapping mission.

"It's a bit of a stretch for us," he said, noting the mapping project to date had been limited to the grounds of Bushy Run. "But stretching is good."

Dist. by Scripps Howard News Service.