Washington, March 19 : Scientists at British Antarctic Survey (BAS) in collaboration with the Technical University of Braunschweig (TUBS), Germany, have completed the first ever series of flights by autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in Antarctica.
Following trials during the austral winter of 2007, the UAVs successfully completed 20 flights between October and December 2007, including four over the Weddell Sea. hey were fitted with instruments to record the exchange of heat between the lower atmosphere and sea ice.
During the Antarctic winter, the Weddell Sea freezes, and because of its bright white colour, the ice reflects heat and helps to cool the planet. However, sea ice is a major unknown feedback mechanism in the Earth's climate system and scientists need to discover more about it and its sensitivity to climate change.
Using UAVs to gather this kind of data is a major step forward, allowing scientists to study areas that are too costly to reach using ships or conventional aircraft.
"UAVs allow scientists to reach the parts others cannot reach - the future of much atmospheric research will be robotic," said Dr Phil Anderson of BAS.
According to Dr Anderson, "This is a huge technological achievement for BAS and TUBS. Apart from take-off and landing, when the UAVs are controlled by radio, the aircraft are completely autonomous, flying on their own according to a pre-programmed flight plan."
"Each flight lasts for 40 minutes, covering around 45 km and taking 100 measurements a second," he added.
Despite the enormous physical and technical challenges BAS's UAV team had to overcome, 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," said Dr Anderson.
"Our next challenge will be to operate UAVs in the depths of the Antarctic winter," he added.