Just two weeks after the extent of Arctic sea ice hit a record low, earth scientists from around the country are putting their heads together to discuss new research platforms for studying remote and risky places like the polar regions.
"When the research is dirty, dull or dangerous, it just might be a job for unmanned aircraft," said Research Associate Elizabeth Weatherhead, who, with Professor Brian Argrow of the University of Colorado at Boulder, is coordinating the first U.S. conference exclusively focused on expanding research applications of remotely piloted aircraft.
Weatherhead works with the CU-Boulder/NOAA Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, or CIRES. Argrow is the director of CU's Research and Engineering Center for Unmanned Vehicles. NOAA is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The unmanned aircraft conference will be hosted by CU-Boulder, Oct. 1 through Oct. 3, at the Boulder Millenium Harvest House with support from CIRES, NOAA, NASA and the Northrop Grumman Corp. More than 150 scientists and business representatives are expected to attend.
"The goal of the CU-Boulder UAS conference is to bring together scientists, businesses, and federal agencies to discuss how UASs can be used for a diverse array of civilian applications," said Susan Avery, past director of CIRES and the convener of the conference. To date, existing aviation regulations have been the biggest obstacle to getting remotely controlled planes off the ground.
In contrast to manned research planes, unmanned aircraft systems, or UASs, can be operated robotically or by pilots on the ground who can switch crews while the aircraft remain in mid-air. As a result, UASs potentially have far fewer constraints on flight time, distance and altitude than manned vehicles.
CIRES scientist and CU-Boulder Professor Jim Maslanik used a 3-meter wingspan UAS during field campaigns based out of Barrow, Alaska, to fly as much as 30 hours over the Arctic Ocean and back to record air temperature, humidity and wind speed and to collect information about conditions of the ice and ocean surface. A typical manned research flight will travel 8 hours at most, covering about one-fourth of the distance.
In the future, Maslanik hopes to use UASs to understand how fast Arctic sea ice is losing mass, or its total volume of water - an important question for understanding the rate of sea-level rise.
"As Arctic ice thins, it crumples in on itself more easily. So, the question becomes, 'Does this piling up of the ice help offset thinning in terms of total ice mass?' Satellites can't tell us that as yet. In order to tackle this problem, we need a tool that can fly directly over the ice and measure changes in ice thickness and roughness at very fine spatial scales," explained Maslanik.
In fact, UASs have an easier time "seeing" many things that satellites can't.
Some satellites are not able to see through clouds or have difficulty differentiating between clouds, ice and snow cover, which are all strong reflectors of light. UASs, in contrast, can fly below cloud cover and, because of their relative proximity to the ground, detect surface properties with much higher precision and accuracy.
CIRES and CU-Boulder doctoral student John Adler recently flew three different UASs over Greenland, each small enough to fit into the back of a medium-sized pickup.
"Some people still think of UASs as toy planes. But we've now shown that you can use these unmanned planes as a platform to carry important Earth-observing instruments into cold, remote areas like the Greenland ice sheet, where extreme weather and crevasses often impede travel by land," said Adler.
"We also used an electric-powered UAS, which means we're reducing the amount of carbon we would otherwise generate from traveling such long distances by snow-mobile," said Adler.
Adler is hoping to continue his work next year and use UASs to help him quantify the volume of water in melt-ponds on the Greenland ice sheet.
Other scientists, according to Weatherhead, hope to use emerging UAS technology to monitor marine mammal populations, including seals and polar bears, and detect leaks in oil pipelines over Alaska and remote coastal areas. Still others are poised to use UAS to penetrate the eye of a hurricane or to quickly assess damage after a natural disaster.
Argrow, who is conference co-coordinator, says colleagues are looking at how UASs might aid disaster relief efforts during an accidental chemical explosion or even a terrorist attack. "Researchers at our center on campus are developing micro-aerial vehicles that could fly, in the hundreds, as a sensor flock to detect and track chemical or biological plumes," he said.
For more information on the UAS conference Civilian Applications of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (CAUAS), visit cauas.colorado.edu/.