Researchers from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) have successfully run a series of flights by autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) over Antarctica. These robotic planes have a 2-meter wingspan and weigh 6 kilograms. They are powered by Lithium Ion Polymer (LIPo) battery packs -- similar to the ones in your cellphones or laptops. So far, these autonomous UAVs have completed about 20 flights lasting 40 minutes each. These robots can fly over 45 kilometers while taking about 100 measurements per second about the exchange of heat between the lower atmosphere and sea ice. According to one of the scientists, 'the future of atmospheric research will be robotic.' But read more...
You can see above a picture of a British Antarctic Survey (BAS) scientist inspecting one of the UAVs in Antarctic on the ground. (Credit: BAS) Here is a link to a larger version of this photo.
These UAVs have been deployed by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) in collaboration with the Technical University of Braunschweig (TUBS), Germany. The deployment has been led by Phil Anderson, Boundary Layer Meteorologist at BAS. You can read a BAS page from 2006 about Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for earlier details and pictures.
But let's come back to 2008. "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."
In "Robots fly into Antarctic skies," BBC News provides additional details. "The unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were launched by catapult but flew autonomously until landing. During some of the test flights the machines were fitted with miniaturised instruments to collect data for use in predictive climate models. 'One of the biggest uncertainties in those models is the physics of sea-ice -- how it freezes and how it melts,' said Dr Phil Anderson of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), one of the team that carried out the tests."
BBC News also tells us how the robotic planes are controlled. "The 2m-wingspan craft are launched by a giant elastic band which catapults them into the sky. It is initially radio-controlled until it reaches its target altitude of 50m, at which point the autonomous control systems kick in. 'We don't fly the mission with a radio control or with a little video camera onboard,' Dr Anderson told BBC News. 'It's all up to the little aircraft to make up its own mind.'"
In "Unmanned craft chart the Antarctic winter," Nature gives additional details about when and why the BAS decided to use robotic craft to gather data about the climate in Antarctica. "Ideally, the planes will fly throughout the year at crucial times for sea ice: when the ice starts to form in February; in the dead of winter; when it begins to melt at the beginning of December; and in the middle of summer, when the temperature is at its warmest. "We would really like [information from] the extremes," says Anderson. In addition to being cheaper to run than manned craft, the AUVs might be the only way to fly over the Antarctic during winter. The BAS uses piloted planes in the Antarctic only during the summer, when light and temperatures are more favourable for flight."
Finally, you can watch two short movies about these UAVs. The first one is on the BBC News page mentioned above (1 minute and 34 seconds). The second can be seen on this BAS page (1 minute and 4 seconds).
Sources: British Antarctic Survey news release, March 18, 2008; and various websites
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