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Scientists probe remote Arctic with research drones

September 14th, 2013 | Joseph Miller Print this article   Email this article  

With modern times comes a modern way to explore the world's northernmost areas in the Arctic, as unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, are allowing researchers to get a bird's eye view of the last great collections of ice in Alaska.

According to a list of registered drone operators released by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, more and more research organizations are deploying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones to study the uppermost polar regions of the planet to study the decline of sea ice in the Arctic.

In July of this year, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a new kind of restricted category type certificated to two unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), an action that is the first of its kind that would allow companies and organizations from the private sector to operate drones in the United States' airspace. A California-based energy company flew its first Arctic drone operation last month off the coast of Alaska and more flights are scheduled, including launches for research into the Arctic Circle.

"Until now, obtaining an experimental airworthiness certificate - which specifically excludes commercial operations—was the only way the private sector could operate UAS in the nation's airspace," said the FAA press release. "Plans for the initial ship-launched flights include surveys of ocean ice floes and migrating whales in Arctic oil exploration areas. The PUMA is expected to support emergency response crews for oil spill monitoring and wildlife surveillance over the Beaufort Sea."

The newly certified drones that are pioneering their use as scientific resources, the Scan Eagle X200 and the AeroVironment's PUMA, are relatively small in regards to the drones typically used by the United States. Each drone weighs between 13 and 55 pounds and is about 4 feet long with wingspans of around nine or ten feet. The drones that will be used for future research in the Arctic will vary in size, some of which may be high-altitude jets, and other being small, remote controlled propeller aircrafts that resemble children's toys. However, they will be very expensive toys, as even some of the more modest drone systems will cost $100,000 or more.

Thus far, scientists and researches have used smaller, battery-operated drones for assistance on several research projects, including the mapping of the summer breeding grounds of sea lions, as well as other aerial observation missions that would not have been able to be accomplished otherwise in such an efficient, environmentally friendly and cost effective way.

"Monitoring ice floes, monitoring the condition of the sea is, whether it's solid or breaking up or spotty in places, is very important for any seagoing activity the Arctic. Monitoring the ice is a concern for oil companies as well as for drilling platforms, as it becomes important to monitor ice flow in regards to the boats going back and forth between the shore and platforms," said Ro Bailey, the Deputy Director for the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "Another aspect of all of this is that oil companies have to comply to a lot of regulations in regards to sea animals, especially marine mammals like whales, seals and sea lions. So the presence of sea ice affects what marine wildlife will be in a certain area, and knowing what ice is there becomes a consideration of where these animals might be.

The potential benefits of these new certification for drones to be used commercially stands to benefit Arctic research exponentially. The unmanned drones can now allow researches access into what was once an environment too hazardous for humans to spend long stretches of time, as well as the ability to maintain observation through dangerous weather conditions and through extremely remote Arctic areas. The missions that these drones may undertake could range from watching out for oil spills, tracking ice flows and measuring the decline of sea ice, to tracking the migratory patterns of whales. These drones will also be able to assist the U.S. Coast Guard in future search and rescue missions.

"In regards to the use of drones in the future, so far they have been very useful, much less expensive than any other mechanism, and a lot safer because there is no human at risk," Bailey said. "Hopefully in the future, these young companies might be able to use this system doing research and possibly make a profit doing this. The FAA has been ordered by Congress to work towards making U.S. airspace available to commercial operations, and what is expected is that the use of drones by these companies will become a routine operation, doing things like surveying roads, and monitoring the pipeline. What we also hope is that some of the companies that will start using this technology routinely will be centered here in Alaska. Having said that, it's still a developmental process"

While the use of drones by civilian organizations, like the University of Fairbanks research programs, are still extremely restricted by the preexisting regulations from the Federal Aviation Authority, the future outlook of drones being used for scientific research looks promising. The use of drones is still restricted by private companies, but a new draft of regulations is expected to be presented in 2015, which will most likely include more lenient regulations in regards for the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for private companies doing scientific research. However, drafting the new regulations will be an unprecedented step in opening up U.S. airspace to the use of privately funded drones.

"I imagine the new regulations will be a lot more rigorous than those of a manned aircraft. From an unmanned perspective, any aircraft you rent or buy the manufacturer has already going through approval with the FAA. Nothing like that exists with unmanned aircraft, and the FAA will have to establish a standard for this," Bailey said.


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