Thanks to a collaboration between the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the Technical University of Braunschweig (TUBS), last month the BAS used unmanned air vehicles (UAV's) to collect data and help research in Antarctica for the first time. Whilst they are used for a variety of purposes around the world at the moment, this was the first time that they had been used in Antarctica.
Dr Phil Anderson of BAS says, "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, so waiting for the UAV to return safely after its research mission was very exciting. Seeing the first UAV come back successfully was a real heart-in-the-mouth moment."
Each UAV has a wingspan of 2m and weighs 6kg. They are electric powered, using state-of-the-art Lithium Ion Polymer (LIPo) battery packs. Electric power ensures that the aircraft are suitable for both atmospheric physics and chemistry studies. Take off is by catapult and landing by skis onto snow, and a modified Tucker Snocat is used as "mission control".
The four UAVs were transported to BAS's Halley research station on the Brunt Ice Shelf on board BAS's Royal Research Ship Ernest Shackleton in late 2006. Scientists from BAS and the Technical University of Braunschweig (Germany) then spent 10 months testing the UAVs and perfecting safe take offs and landings before the first successful data-gathering flight on 30 October 2007.
According to Anderson, "UAVs allow scientists to reach the parts others cannot reach - the future of much atmospheric research will be robotic."
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