Monday May 29, 2017

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Flying Arctic penguins

Danish drones are ready for their first season of helping measure ice thickness in Greenland
Wings that work (Photo: Aarhus Universitet/Aarhus University)

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Don’t let the model name of Denmark’s newest polar-research drones fool you: the three Penguin B drones will be based at its recently opened Villum Research Station in Greenland, some 900km from the North Pole, and will document changes in land and sea ice by taking measurements from the air.

The first of the three drones, each weighing 25kg and with a wingspan of over 3m, was delivered to representatives from Aarhus Universitet/Aarhus University on Monday after successfully completing a battery of tests.

Once taken into use later this year, the drones will use laser scanners originally developed for self-driving cars, together with a camera and a precision GPS system to measure the thickness of snow on ice. The information will supplement measurements of ice thickness made by the European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2 satellite.

Information about snow depths are necessary because satellites cannot differentiate between snow and ice. Currently, aeroplanes are used to measure snow depths. They will still be used after the drones are taken into service, but incorporating drones into data-gathering programmes will require fewer costly aeroplane flights.

SEE RELATED: Danish polar-research strategy light on funding

The drones, which have a flying time of up to 10 hours, are expected to be able to measure an area the size of Denmark (about 40,000 sq km) in a single flight. 

Modifying the measurement equipment so it can operate in the Arctic and shrinking it to fit inside a drone, rather than onboard an aeroplane, made up significant portion of the drones’ 5 million kroner ($700,000) development cost.

The work, carried out by DTU, a Danish science institute, also involved installing a mini-computer the size of a matchbox to process the information the sensors gather. Making the computer as small as possible required leaving out the ventilation fan normally used to keep computer equipment cool.

While not having the fan required the development team take special precautions during testing in Denmark to prevent it from overheating, they expected it not to pose a problem once the drone was in the field.