Scientists have successfully piloted drones over Antarctic ice floe from aboard a ship in a world-first operation they say has the potential to change the face of Antarctic science.
There is a precautionary ban on drones at sea under most Antarctic programs because of the potential to disturb wildlife and cross into controlled air space, among other things.
But a team of Australian scientists were given special permission by the American National Science Foundation to use the technology during ice breaker Nathaniel B Palmer’s most recent voyage.
Research scientist Dr Guy Williams with the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) piloted the drone.
“This is probably one of the first times we’ve tried to deploy from an ice breaker in the sea ice,” he said.
Dr Williams said the drone used SLR cameras to measure ice floes.
“We were just trying to test the acquisition of aerial imagery or mapping of the sea ice from the surface,” he said.
Fellow Australian researcher Dr Alex Fraser from the Hokkaido University ran operations from the ship.
Dr Fraser said challenges included extreme cold, which can affect batteries, high winds and difficulties with magnetic compasses.
“The magnetic compass gets affected in these regions because the direction of the south magnetic pole is not the same direction as the south geographic pole,” he said.
He said the technology opened up research opportunities.
“We can study the really big floes from space, using high resolution satellites, but to get down to the smaller scale floes we really need this kind of platform,” he said.
The project was a scoping study for future drone use over Antarctic oceans.
Dr Williams said overall the mission was a huge success.
“There were challenges,” he said.
“But we found we were able to fly safely and without impacting the overall logistics of the crews and … we’ve brought back some data that we’re able to explore.”
Dr Williams said drone technology had the potential to change the face of Antarctic science.
“The sky is the limit really,” he said.
“There’s any number of opportunities for different sensors to be put on, for atmospheric profiling, for more advanced topographical studies of the surface of the sea ice.”