New use for drones: Studying Arctic melt

Researchers and universities are using the planes to track the environment, from oil spills to Arctic melt

Topics: Climate Central, The Guardian, climate, Drones, Arctic melt, ,

New use for drones: Studying Arctic melt (Credit: AP/Leslie Pratt/Pixel Embargo via Shutterstock/Salon)

The logical next step for exploring some of the world’s most inhospitable terrain is being taken. Researchers are using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – drones – to explore the last great repositories of ice in Greenland, Antarctica and Alaska.

Researchers are using unmanned aerial vehicles – drones – to explore the last great repositories of ice in Greenland, Antarctica and Alaska.

Credit: University of Alaska, Fairbanks

About two dozen universities and research organizations, including NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have registered as drone operators, according to a list released last year to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Some of those researchers were tracking wildfires or ozone concentrations, oil spills and volcano ash, but a significant number were deployed to the polar regions to study the melting of the ice.

The planes vary in size, from small, remote-controlled propeller aircraft that look as if they belong in a toy shop to the latest high-altitude jets.

Some take off from landing strips, others after being thrown into the air. Some fly for up to 20 hours, depending on the weight of the instruments aboard; others can remain airborne for only a few minutes at a time.

But UAVs are increasingly being sent into situations too dangerous for humans, such as the center of a developing storm or to extremely remote areas.

They generally fly lower and slower than conventional aircraft, and are much quieter. They are also much cheaper: about $100,000 for some modest systems.

Among the research projects to date that have used UAVs was Colorado University’s participation in unmanned science flights across Antarctica, Greenland and the Svalbard archipelago in Norway to study changes in the sea ice.

A section of the Petermann glacier in Greenland, photographed by the ‘heli-cam,’ a remote camera attached to a small single engine helicopter, triggered from inside the cockpit by remote control.

Credit: Nick Cobbing/Greenpeace, via The Guardian

And scientists from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks used a small battery-powered drone to map the summer breeding grounds of sea lions, flying over the animals at heights as low as 300 feet.

However, Chris Zappa, an oceanographer at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who has used UAVs in the Antarctic as well as Greenland, said the use of UAVs in research was still in its infancy.

Regulations are also lagging behind. The Federal Aviation Authority has limited the use of drones by civilian organizations and is expected to draft new regulations in 2015.

“We are on the cutting edge of where gliders were in oceans 20 years ago,” said Zappa. “We had this technology and people were just figuring out how to use it – and now everyone is using it.

“We are at that stage with unmanned aerial vehicles where we are just figuring out how to put things on them, and use them, and it is just going to burgeon into a capability to look at the world in a new way.”

Reprinted from The Guardian with permission.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...