Abuzz with Opportunity: Drone Research in the Antarctic

A drone is deployed near McMurdo Station as part of Professor John Cassano’s atmospheric research in Antarctica (Source: John Cassano).

Summer in the Western Antarctic Peninsula brings long days, short nights, and a burst of life and activity. Penguins attend to the drama of colony life, seals alternate between hunting and sunning on ice flows, and humpback whales swim by, admired by tourists from the decks of cruise ships. The warmth of the summer sun causes glaciers to calve, creating new icebergs.

Now, there’s a new kid on the block— hovering above the glacial landscapes and wildlife, you can sometimes spot an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, helping researchers study animals in new ways. A recent Cambridge University Press publication by David Leary assessed the regulatory response to UAVs by the Antarctic scientific and tourism communities.

The Antarctic is new territory for drone researchers and forbidden ground for tourists. In 2014, as both recreation and scientific drone usage in the United States were ramping up, the National Science Foundation prohibited research drones until the agency could address environmental and safety concerns and establish a set of best practices for deployment in Antarctica. The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) banned drones for the same reasons during the 2015/16 and 2016/17 seasons.

UAVs have great potential for both science and tourism in Antarctica, but they can also threaten safety and the environment (Source: David Johnston/Twitter).

Nations outside the U.S. have been leading the charge on Antarctic drone research, and the initial results have been promising. A 2014 project by the Japanese National Institute of Polar Research used UAVs to take aerial photos and magnetic data of Deception and Livingston Islands, collecting data on glacial recession with much lower risk than comes with traditional, manned aircraft. A study by the Warsaw University of Technology and Norwegian National Center for Research and Development outfitted drones with remote sensing technology to gather baseline data on glacial retreat, flora distribution, and whale and seal populations.

Professor David Johnston of the Duke University Marine Lab is at the forefront of U.S.-based Antarctic drone research. After receiving a small facility grant from NSF about two years ago, Johnston used the funds to renovate an old building, purchase aircraft and computing infrastructure, and start dreaming up new research questions involving drones. The technology is “changing faster than anything I’ve ever seen,” marveled Johnston. “In the last couple of years, our aircraft can now fly twice as long, the resolution is almost double, and the cost has come way down.”

Professor Johnston deploys a drone as part of research off the Western Antarctic Peninsula (Source: David Johnston/Twitter).

Johnston’s team was first able to fly their aircraft around the Western Antarctic Peninsula on a research cruise in January and February 2017, and they hit the skies running. The team collected footage that allowed them to efficiently count seals and penguins, used photogrammetry techniques to measure humpback whale size, and photographed the process of “bubble netting,” a foraging technique in which the whales work together to concentrate prey into high-density aggregations. “That was one of the more epic things we were able to capture on the trip,” said Johnston. “We can study the timing of bubble burst, the width of the nets, and translate beautiful images into deeply quantitative data.”

A drone captured this image of a humpback “bubble netting” in Wilhemina Bay (Source: David Johnston/Twitter).

Johnston is working to demonstrate the value of this technology to research partners in the Palmer Long-Term Ecological Research Station. He anticipates a future of on-demand aerial surveys and remote sensing, and a huge range of applications that include looking at vegetation growth and using a thermal camera to study glacial ground flow.

Though there has been concern about UAVs disturbing animals, Johnston believes they are actually among the best practices for wildlife research. “Whales, seals, and sea turtles don’t know drones are there— We can do our measurements in ways that are less risky and noisy. It’s better than sending people through penguin colonies, approaching close with a boat, or flying a plane low to count them.”

At their May 2017 meeting, IAATO members agreed to maintain the drone ban. Tourists must get permission from their tour operator if they want to fly a drone in Antarctica, and the nascent regulations are not yet clear. Johnston is conflicted about whether tourists should be able to operate UAVs in such a sensitive environment. “The appreciation you get of the environment from capturing footage with a drone is amazing, but the potential to damage the environment and people is real,” he cautioned. “We need to be careful, like we would anywhere. What kind of experience would you need to fly in the Antarctic? Maybe you’d need to be a commercial drone pilot, or have a certain certain number of flight hours, or experience flying at high latitudes.”

For now, there’s plenty of important data to collect and hope that the Western Antarctic Peninsula, among the fastest warming regions of the world, will benefit from this timely new technology.

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