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Someone standing on the ground in the Canadian Arctic last week might have caught of a glimpse of something of a rare bird overhead: a civilian drone.
But the likelihood is that there were no humans on the ground – or human-made objects in the sky – to observe the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk on its 21-hour flight. It is that fact that is precisely why the region is becoming something of a hotspot for developers of drones - or unmanned aerial systems (UAS) as developers prefer to call them – and the firms seeking to gain hours flying the vehicles in non-military situations.
Northrop Grumman, Nasa, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a number of Canadian science organisations teamed up on the mission.
The Global Hawk, according to Northrop Grumman, has already been used for a wide range of environmental missions, including collecting atmospheric data in tropical and temperate regions, but this marked the first time it had been deployed in the Arctic.
“Flying high and long missions with advanced scientific equipment over the Arctic provides scientists with real data to better understand the changes that are affecting our world,” said Janis Pamiljans, Northrop Grumman's sector vice president and general manager of unmanned systems.
Arctic proving ground The flight’s intended purpose was to conduct ground mapping and visual observation of Arctic ice caps. But more important than the data the aircraft collected was the potential the flight has for future climate studies – as well as drone development in general.
The flight, by drone standards, wasn’t particularly ground-breaking. Drones have long plied the skies over many of the world’s military hotspots, and as their technology matures they have become increasingly commonplace in other scenarios, including during relief efforts after typhoon Haiyan earlier this year.
But, what was worth noting about the flight was that it showed the Arctic’s potential as a potential proving ground for drones.
Still banned from populated areas in most countries due to safety concerns and uncertainties about how to regulate such vehicles, in areas such as Alaska, drones are already hard at work.
Those flights, though, have either been carried out by public agencies conducting monitoring of wildlife or inspecting oil pipelines, or by manufacturers as part of testing. This summer, however, the state allowed ConocoPhillips, an oil producer, to take the helm of a pair of drones for use in its oil exploration efforts.
The oil firm has been tight-lipped about its use of the drones (and was identified only as a “major energy company” in the official announcement) but according to the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), ConocoPhillips was to use them for surveys of ocean ice floes and migrating whales in oil exploration areas, as well as support emergency response crews for oil spill monitoring.
The two drones are only permitted to fly over open water and must be launched from ships, but how they perform could provide a wealth of experience for US officials, who have stated that they want the country’s airspace opened to commercial drone traffic by 2015.
“Issuing the type certificates is an important step toward the FAA’s goal of integrating UAS into the nation’s airspace,” the organisation wrote.
The Arctic and its wide-open spaces – both on land and in the air – is an ideal place to test drones. If the FAA has its way, it will also be where robotkind makes a “giant leap” of its own.