Skip to main content

Listen

Read

Watch

Schedules

Programs

Events

Give

Account

Donation Heart Ribbon

San Diego Zoo Will Use Drone To Monitor Polar Bear Habitat

San Diego Zoo Global’s science team (L-R: Dr. James Sheppard, Dr. Megan Owen,...

Credit: Courtesy Northrop Grumman

Above: San Diego Zoo Global’s science team (L-R: Dr. James Sheppard, Dr. Megan Owen, and Dr. Nicholas Pilfold) works with the Northrop Grumman technical team in the field to refine their sensor suite to meet the needs of their Arctic conservation efforts in this undated photo.

San Diego Zoo Global researchers will use a custom drone next month to monitor the impact of changing sea ice patterns on polar bears in the Canadian Arctic, zoo officials announced Thursday.

The six-rotor hexacopter platform manufactured by Northrop Grumman will give scientists a closer look at the bears in their habitat than before and help them collect important data. Previous studies depended on satellite imagery.

"There are few studies of polar bears based on direct observation," said Nicholas Pilfold, a population sustainability scientist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

"With the development of this autonomous system, we are hoping to gain a perspective into polar bear lives rarely seen before" Pilfold said. "This data will ultimately help inform conservation strategies for the species."

Northrop Grumman,

Northrup Grumman helped develop the autonomous drone that's capable of operating in extreme cold.

"We built them a custom, leading edge sensor fusion suite which takes a whole variety of different sensors and puts them all together and operates them simultaneously at an extremely high resolution so they can study sea ice at a very fine scale and how it changes really rapidly," said Charlie Welch, research coordinator at Northrup Grumman.

The device is a modified commercial drone that is packed full of high-tech sensor equipment. Those delicate scientific instruments are wrapped up in protective shielding that keeps the cold out and keeps the equipment warm enough to allow it's batteries to work.

It gives scientists a tool they never had before as they study sea ice.

"It is like a multi-spectral sensor that gives us different light wavelengths, a thermal sensor that'll map out the heat gradients, a radar to help us map out the terrain in 3D, all these things, all this data that can be collected simultaneously, at once. So we don't have to re-fly over the same area over and over again," said James Sheppard, a researcher for San Diego Zoo Global.

Northrop Grumman,

Putting all that information together helps researchers understand the habitat and how that affects the polar bears that live there.

The drone was tested last year in the Arctic by a team of Northrop Grumman engineers from Florida to see how the system performed in remote areas with extreme weather conditions.

The autonomous system is expected to provide a more detailed, finer-scale view of sea ice habitat, and it offers the potential to observe polar bears without disturbing the animals or posing a risk to humans.

Next month's expedition, dubbed Operation #PolarEye, will operate from the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, located along the Hudson Bay coastline in Churchill, Manitoba and a remote research facility located on the Knife Delta.

Northrop Grumman,

During the mission the team will livestream video to the ground station so they can operate a developmental polar bear recognition algorithm, which they hope will notify scientists when a polar bear is spotted to allow for easier monitoring on the ice.

San Diego Zoo Global researchers will use a custom drone next month to monitor the impact of changing sea ice patterns on polar bears in the Canadian Arctic, zoo officials announced Thursday.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or subscribe to our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.