Published: Feb. 8, 2019 By

CU Researchers testing a drone in Alaska

CU Boulder Research Scientist Gijs de Boer prepares to launch a DataHawk to collect atmospheric measurements as sea ice is forming in far northern Alaska.

CU Boulder researchers will fly drones this fall as part of a massive expedition to the Arctic to study climate at the top of the world.

The research is part of the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate expedition - MOSAiC for short. During the expedition, over 600 researchers from 17 countries will gather data on the atmosphere, drifting ice, ocean temperatures, Arctic organisms and more. The work will fuel climate and ecosystem research for decades to come and represents the largest and most complex venture to the center of the Arctic ever.

One of CU’s contributions to the MOSAiC project is headed by Gijs de Boer, a scientist with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), who is collaborating with CU aerospace Professors Dale Lawrence and Brian Argrow. Associate Professor John Cassano with Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences and CIRES is also involved in the project. Through funding from the National Science Foundation, their group will fly a fleet of drones to collect data on near surface atmosphere conditions during half of the year-long expedition. De Boer said that detailed measurements of the lower atmosphere was something that they felt was missing in the larger MOSAiC effort, despite the fact that such measurements will be useful in understanding the physical processes driving current and future climate states. For example, such measurements are critical when it comes to understanding and simulating processes regulating the surface energy budget, such as clouds and radiative transfer.

“One of the central questions MOSAiC wants to get at is the evolution of the sea ice in the central Arctic. We will be using the measurements to understand how atmospheric radiation is impacting the surface of the ice and how that, in turn, impacts melt,” he said. “Also, we will be able to measure how a thinner ice pack – one that is more prone to breaking – feeds back to change lower atmosphere conditions and impact the development of clouds and relative humidity.”

Lawrence added that collecting this kind of data by drone had several benefits in the Arctic, including lower cost.

“It doesn’t require the type of infrastructure a full-sized plane would need like a runway for example. And while you can do some of this work through satellites, they can’t see through clouds at all wavelengths or measure fine-scale structures near the surface,” he said. “This work is really in its infancy and we are trying to get drones used in this environment in a widespread way.”

Lawrence said the benefits of using a drone for this type of work will multiply as the system becomes more autonomous in the future. He envisions a world where drones can dock and refuel themselves between missions for example. That would limit the time humans have to spend working or living in harsh conditions to conduct similar research. It would also expand the coverage area and provide many other benefits.
“Automation would also lower the amount of training needed to operate these things, meaning they could be used more often,” said Lawrence. “The next step could be coordinated sampling where systems are talking to each other and using measurements to guide where they are going next.”

The trio, along with students and engineers, are currently building a variety of drones for the mission. Some of these systems were purchased using funds allocated for evaluation of new navigation systems coming partially from an Autonomous Systems Interdisciplinary Research Theme seed grant. This navigation system development is critical in an environment where magnetic “north” doesn’t necessarily point towards the pole. The plan is to test the updated drone in Svalbard in April – leveraging a high latitude location to put the system through its paces in a representative environment.

The MOSAiC expedition will be based out of the Polarstern icebreaker ship which will intentionally freeze itself into the ice in the Arctic for 350 days this fall. The German Alfred Wegener Institute owns the research vessel and icebreaker, and AWI is leading the international expedition. Supplies and new researchers will be ferried in on other ships or airplanes. De Boer said that three groups of two people each will be going on the expedition as a part of this particular CU Boulder project, starting in February 2020. These two-month deployments are intentionally staggered throughout distinct seasons with the hope of collecting data on a range of conditions.

Dale Lawrence working on a drone during testing

CU Boulder Professor Dale Lawrence prepares a DataHawk for scientific flights in Arctic Alaska.

“The data we are collecting during this mission will be used for the next 30 years of research and nearly every American scientific agency, along with many around the world, are contributing to it in some way,” he said. “In many ways, it may be a more complex and a bigger challenge to coordinate than the international space station.”

MOSAiC by the numbers

  •  The expedition’s planned duration is 350 days in the ice.

  •  For 60-90 days, the Polarstern will be less than 125 miles from the geographic north pole.

  • Throughout the year, a total of 600 researchers and experts – CU will occupy more than 30 berths on the ship over the course of the campaign including six for this project.

  • At least six people will be assigned as “polar bear watch” to ensure researcher safety.

  • The polar night, during which the sun never rises above the horizon, will continue for 150 days.

  • The operating cost of the expedition is over $200,000 a day. That doesn’t include the cost for researchers or equipment.

    - Information from MOSAiC