Europe breaks new ground in unmanned air-reconnaissance

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) are expected to help develop new techniques for scientific data collection in the South Pole’s extreme cold continent, they can be remote controlled or can fly
autonomously based on automation systems or pre-programmed flight plans.

Researchers from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the Technical University of Braunschweig (TUBS), Germany have successfully completed the first-ever series of UAV flights in Antarctica.

‘This is a huge technological achievement for BAS and TUBS,’ remarks Dr Phil Anderson, a scientist with the Cambridge-based BAS. ‘Apart from take-off and landing, when the UAVs are controlled
by radio, the aircraft are completely autonomous, flying on their own according to a pre-programmed flight plan,’ he adds. The UAVs covered an area of about 45 kilometres, and each flight
lasted for 40 minutes. During this time, the robotic planes took 100 measurements per second. The research team completed 20 flights in total, between October and December 2007.

Powered by Lithium Ion Polymer (LIPo) battery packs, these UAVs have a wingspan of two metres and weigh six kilograms. ‘Waiting for the UAV to return safely after its research mission was very
exciting,’ Dr Anderson stresses. ‘Seeing the first UAV come back successfully was a real heart-in-the-mouth moment.’

The flight plan included flights over the Weddell Sea, which freezes during the Antarctic winter. During this time, the sea has a bright white colour and the ice reflects heat, which
effectively cools the planet. The vehicles were fitted with instruments to record the exchange of heat between the lower atmosphere and sea ice. These flights are expected to provide scientists
with information that is currently lacking on how sea ice affects the mechanism in the Earth’s climate system.

The UAVs will also help scientists study areas that are typically too costly when using conventional means such as standard aircrafts or ships. ‘UAVs allow scientists to reach the parts others
cannot reach – the future of much atmospheric research will be robotic,’ says Dr Anderson.

The scientists consider that the Antarctic is an ideal location for breaking new ground on the technology of UAVs, even though there are a number of challenges to overcome, such as dealing with
chilling temperatures. ‘UAVs are physically harder to operate in the Antarctic, but far easier in safety terms because there is virtually nothing sensitive to hit,’ says Dr Anderson. ‘Our next
challenge will be to operate UAVs in the depths of the Antarctic winter.’

The four UAVs were shipped to BAS’ Halley research station on the Brunt Ice Shelf on board the Survey’s Royal Research Ship Ernest Shackleton in late 2006. The scientists tested the UAVs over a
10-month period to ensure safe take-offs and landings before launching the first data-gathering flight in October 2007.

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