Laura Nielsen for Frontier Scientists
Speeding over Arctic sea ice, small remote-controlled aircraft snag video footage and high-definition shots of endangered Steller Sea Lions in their natural habitat. Quiet and unobtrusive, the machines can serve as Special Op.s for researchers. Low-altitude remote sensing using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) has vast potential... and we're only beginning to explore it.
Gregory Walker, the manager of the unmanned aircraft applications program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, has been putting UAVs to good use, exploring their potential on the Alaskan Frontier. “The more you show the capability of these things, the more people come up with needs for them,” Walker said. He tests UAVs at the Poker Flat Research Range outside of Fairbanks, in addition to flights in the field.
UAVs perform well: surveying marine wildlife, in climate change studies, for pathfinding missions and as aides in emergency response plans, and accessing remote, hard-to-see or dangerous areas like active wildfires, volcano sites or oil spill areas.
In January 2012, the Russian tanker Renda moved to deliver more than 1.3 million gallons of gasoline to Nome, Alaska. The Coast Guard Cutter Healy ground a path for both ships through sea ice toward Nome. As the ships approached, a team from the University of Alaska Fairbanks used UAVs to shoot images of the ice cover and engage in ice profiling. Those pictures let personnel gauge ice thickness and plot the safest route toward Nome. (It was yet one more way in which many technologies came together during the voyage to Nome.) UAVs have proven themselves capable of operating in inclement weather, low visibility, and weather with icing potential.
In the Arctic, where the possibility of oil spills is increasing with increased offshore oil development, UAVs have promising applications for oil companies. Besides being used to conduct wildlife surveys in threatened areas, they might examine shorelines if a spill occurs. While assessing the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, British Petroleum used propeller-driven flying machines called Aeryon Scouts. For prevention instead of cleanup, UAVs can also serve as inspectors. In November 2011, Gregory Walker flew an Aeryon Scout at a BP oilfield near Prudhoe Bay. There, 50-feet tall machinery and pipes release flames to the atmosphere to relieve pressure in oil wells. The images Walker captured let workers determine what pipes needed repair or replacement, without putting any humans in danger.
Similarly, the flying machines can fly in response to natural disasters. They can sample volcanic ash right out of the air over uneasy volcanoes, where fumes and the risk of ash-clogged engines keep manned flights away. UAVs can engage in Aerosol Collection, taking air samples to assist in studying the atmosphere or particle pollution. Scan Eagles, UAVs roughly the size of a California condor, have been used to track the edges of forest fires in smoky conditions, safeguarding firefighters. Alaska has even utilized UAVs in disaster-response exercizes. Responding to a large earthquake, for example, will be easier when responders can swiftly analyze the extent of damage to communities via aerial view. And UAVs can be launched with less prep. work than manned aircraft. They don't require a runway, cell-phone connection, or large ammounts of fuel, making them ideal in remote Arctic locations.
Researchers launched their UAVs in March 2012 off a ship the size of a fishing vessel to research Steller Sea Lion communities. Where traditional flyovers would take pilots and biologists far out over the open waters of the Bering Sea into potentially harsh weather conditions, these test flights sent small UAVs to many seal gathering places in the western Aleutian Islands. The ability to take short flights during pockets of clear weather and keep personnel safe onboard the ship highlights the benefits of UAV use in the dangerous and unpredictable weather of the Arctic. The machines are even able to fly despite weather conditions that would ground manned aircraft. Besides the small copter-like Aeryon Scout, the team used an AreoVironment Puma AE, a small plane with a 10 foot wingspan that can fly for two hours. The two crafts used video, infrared, and photo to capture information from 54 different sea lion sites. Most were locations where sea lions return again and again in order to socialize and rest on land (or ice) called haulout sites. Barely audible at 70 feet, the very quiet UAVs were able to film the sea lions from closer altitudes than a plane without scaring them into the water (as large and loud manned planes generally do).
The UAVs are operated via an electronic interface, and the pilot does not need to see them to fly them -he can rely on their camera feeds- making them extremely useful for wildlife surveying.
Alaska is investing in the emerging field of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, because they can serve many purposes in the Arctic and beyond. Gregory Walker notes that by understanding the potential and the limitations of current UAV technology we can find people the right tools to solve many of their problems. We look forward to more spectacular uses for these agile and impressive machines.