Press Release - Unmanned aerial vehicles mark robotic first for British Antarctic Survey
Issue date: 18 Mar 2008
Dr Phil Anderson of BAS says, “This is a huge technological achievement for BAS and TUBS. 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. Each flight lasts for 40 minutes, covering around 45 km and taking 100 measurements a second, so waiting for the UAV to return safely after its research mission was very exciting. Seeing the first UAV come back successfully was a real heart-in-the-mouth moment.”
Get the Flash Player to see this player.Following trials during the austral winter of 2007, the UAVs successfully completed 20 flights between October and December 2007, including four over the Weddell Sea. They were fitted with instruments to record the exchange of heat between the lower atmosphere and sea ice. During the Antarctic winter, the Weddell Sea freezes, and because of its bright white colour, the ice reflects heat and helps to cool the planet. However, sea ice is a major unknown feedback mechanism in the Earth’s climate system and scientists need to discover more about it and its sensitivity to climate change.
Using UAVs to gather this kind of data is a major step forward, allowing scientists to study areas that are too costly to reach using ships or conventional aircraft. According to Anderson, “UAVs allow scientists to reach the parts others cannot reach – the future of much atmospheric research will be robotic.”
Despite the enormous physical and technical challenges BAS’s UAV team had to overcome – not least learning how to keep batteries operating at very low temperatures and how to operate radio controls for take off and landing in thick gloves and mitts – the Antarctic is actually an ideal place to pioneer UAV technology. “UAVs are physically harder to operate in the Antarctic, but far easier in safety terms because there is virtually nothing sensitive to hit. Our next challenge will be to operate UAVs in the depths of the Antarctic winter,” says Anderson.
Issued by British Antarctic Survey Press Office.
Athena Dinar, tel: +44 (0)1223 221414; mob: 07740 822229; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr Phil Anderson, British Antarctic Survey, Tel: +44 (0)1223 221489; email: email@example.com
Notes for Editors:
Pictures and broadcast quality footage of the UAVs in action are available from the BAS Press Office as above.
Each UAV has a wingspan of 2m and weighs 6kg. They are electric powered, using state-of-the-art Lithium Ion Polymer (LIPo) battery packs. Electric power ensures that the aircraft are suitable for both atmospheric physics and chemistry studies. Take off is by catapult and landing by skis onto snow, and a modified Tucker Snocat is used as “mission control”.
The four UAVs were transported to BAS’s Halley research station on the Brunt Ice Shelf on board BAS’s Royal Research Ship Ernest Shackleton in late 2006. Scientists from BAS and the Technical University of Braunschweig (Germany) then spent 10 months testing the UAVs and perfecting safe take offs and landings before the first successful data-gathering flight on 30 October 2007.
The Cambridge-based British Antarctic Survey (BAS) is a world leader in research into global environmental issues. With an annual budget of around £40 million, five Antarctic Research Stations, two Royal Research Ships and five aircraft BAS undertakes an interdisciplinary research programme and plays an active and influential role in Antarctic affairs. BAS has joint research projects with over 40 UK universities and has more than 120 national and international collaborations. It is a component of the Natural Environment Research Council. More information about the work of the Survey can be found at: www.antarctica.ac.uk