A robotic Meridian to fly over the poles

The Meridian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is a single-engine research aircraft with fixed landing gear designed by engineers at the University of Kansas. According to Technology Review, it will be used to see what happens beneath the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. Two units are currently built for a cost of about 3 U.S. million dollars. The Meridian will fly for up to 13 hours over a distance of 1,750 kilometers. The first flight over Greenland is forecasted next summer. And a second flight will take place over the Antarctic later in 2008.

The Meridian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is a single-engine research aircraft with fixed landing gear designed by engineers at the University of Kansas. According to Technology Review, it will be used to see what happens beneath the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. Two units are currently built for a cost of about 3 U.S. million dollars. The Meridian will fly for up to 13 hours over a distance of 1,750 kilometers. The first flight over Greenland is forecasted next summer. And a second flight will take place over the Antarctic later in 2008.

The Meridian unmanned aircraft

This aircraft has been developed at the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS) of the University of Kansas. The new Meridian design shown above is the result of several design iterations focused on manufacturability and operational constraints (Credit: CReSIS). Here is a link to a document describing the current Meridian design concept (PDF format, 1 page), from which the above diagram has been picked.

This document also provides the essential characteristics of this unmanned aircraft.

  • Takeoff Weight: 1,083 pounds (492 kilograms)
  • Empty Weight: 618 pounds (281 kilograms)
  • Fuel Weight: 295 pounds (134 kilograms)
  • Payload Weight 165 pounds (75 kilograms)
  • Wingspan: 26.4 feet (8.2 meters)
  • Length: 17 feet (5.3 meters)
  • Range: 1,750 kilometers (950 nautical miles)
  • Endurance: 13 hours

Now, let's look at the Technology Review article for additional details. "The plane will fly in conditions that would be too risky for humans, and it will fly lower than would be safe for human pilots, enabling sensors to bring back sharper pictures. The aircraft's key instrument, a 125-pound radar unit, will fire signals through kilometers of ice at several frequencies. Software will then analyze the timing of returning signals to create a clear picture of subsurface ice layers, water pockets, and the contours of the underlying bedrock or soil."

The Meridian UAV will use several ways to communicate with the humans in charge of the missions. "The first will allow humans to remotely control takeoff and landing. The second will allow radio-frequency communications when the aircraft is near a base camp. The third means enables satellite communications when the aircraft might be as far as 600 kilometers away from the nearest camp. The plane's wings--which have a span of about 26 feet--are being designed to have de-icing capability, and heaters will prevent the electronics from failing in the extreme cold."

It will also use a special radar. "The aircraft will leverage a powerful radar technology honed at the university. The radar, developed jointly with other institutions, is unique in its ability to provide a detailed picture of ice layers and, in particular, the boundary between ice and ground, which is helpful in efforts to understand how fast ice sheets might slide into the ocean."

For more information about the Meridian, here are three technical reports to read -- and from which I picked some details about the costs of the program.

Sources: David Talbot, Technology Review, September 13, 2007; and various websites

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