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San Diego Zoo, Northrop Grumman Developing Drones To Study Polar Bears

Photo caption:

Photo credit: San Diego Zoo Global

A polar bear swimming at the San Diego Zoo in an undated photo.

San Diego Zoo, Northrop Grumman Developing Drones To Study Polar Bears


Charlie Welch, research and design engineer, Northrop Grumman

Nicholas Pilfold, postdoctoral associate, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research


Ecologists at the San Diego Zoo say the biggest threat to polar bears in the wild is climate change, as warming temperatures in the Arctic melt the sea ice polar bears use to support their weight while they hunt.

But it's difficult to study the bears as they travel across the Arctic because loud helicopter motors disrupt the bears' natural behavior and any equipment must be able to withstand freezing winds. That's why zoo researchers are teaming up with engineers at Northrop Grumman to develop drones that can fly for several hours in Arctic weather. Researchers traveled to Manitoba, Canada earlier this month to test the drones in real-world conditions.

"I’m a biologist, not an engineer," said Nicholas Pilfold, a postdoctoral associate in applied animal ecology at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. "I know the type of technology we need to answer critical research questions, but we don’t have the technological expertise to build the type of systems we need to operate in the Arctic."

Zoo researchers are hoping the autonomous drones can gather high-resolution data on polar bears' ice habitat. Northrop's engineers are using battery power instead of a gas engine to power the aircraft, which can track bears' movement over thousands of miles. Future missions would require additional approval from aviation regulators.

Pilfold and Northop engineer Charlie Welch join KPBS Midday Edition on Tuesday to share results from their test in Manitoba and what data the finished drones will collect.

Editor's Note: A previous version of the story said researchers were waiting for final approval from Canadian officials to use drones to study polar bears. The error has been corrected.


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