Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
KPBS Midday Edition

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

A polar bear swimming at the San Diego Zoo in an undated photo.
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
San Diego Zoo, Northrop Grumman Developing Drones To Study Polar Bears GUESTS: Charlie Welch, research and design engineer, Northrop Grumman Nicholas Pilfold, postdoctoral associate, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research

Joined to observe animals in the wild especially in extreme climates is spotty at best and often impossible but that is when scientists get creative. Polar bear researchers at the San Diego zoo have teamed up with engineers at Northrop Grumman to develop an unmanned drone that can help them study climate change and polar bears in the Arctic researchers have recently returned from the Arctic after testing the drone and getting an idea of the kind of information it can give them to joining me is Charlie Welch research and design engineer with Northrop Grumman and welcome to the show. Thank you for having me. Nicholas Pilfold a postdoctoral associate in applied animal ecology at San Diego Zoo Institute for conservation research. Welcome to the program. Thank you.. Nicholas what has been the problem with the way scientists have typically try to study polar bears? One of the things that we have struggled with as polar bear researchers is getting close to polar bears to observe them in the natural habitat without disturbing the bears so traditionally a lot of researchers we have done has been done via helicopter and helicopters are noisy machines so polar bears know that we are there before we can see them. Technology were trying to develop now is to have a machine that is more quieter than helicopter and that can give us an unseen I into the polar bear life as we are trying to push that technology to go to regions where humans rarely go as areas that are difficult for us to access. Do the Bears seem to notice drones at all? We are working on that one of the things we did on this trip is to look at the auditory analysis for the unit we had in the Arctic so we would take the information now and compare it to the research we have done with the polar bears as Inigo zoo to determine the types of frequencies and magnitude of the sound coming off of the UAV and whether it's a disturbance to the race. Northrop Grumman is no for vehicle --. We have a rich history a lot of different scientific missions like the telescope to NASA global Hawk and with the opportunities like this in which we get to engage scientifically and engineering and to missions of science, conservation as a really good challenge for engineers and the right thing to do to help technology push conservation and scientific discovery. As I understand it there was a companywide challenge to design a drone that would be perfect for this research. What were the key areas, the problems that you had to overcome in designing a drone like this? Going of what he said a big issue is being in the polar bear's environment and have them know that they are they are along with the fact that we operate in one of the harshest environments of the world such as gold, wind, the Google places to take off and land so teams have to get innovative with designs on how to an unmanned system that could fit all of the needs and operate in the Arctic environment. The teams come up with a different idea about how to do that in the winning team was selected in getting to tested in the field ask what was it like testing it in the field? How cold was it? [Laughter] . we got a good dose of Arctic weather. It's been a strange year in Hudson baby before we came up it was warm and rained the day before we came up which is very atypical for that climate but as soon as we got there the Arctic weather arrived it was about 0°F or mice 20 Celsius with a stiff wind dropping further with the windchill. So that really gave a realistic operating condition for the drone to be tested and for me I was impressed with the fact that he was able to rise to the challenge and work and what we would be epic extreme for what we were working in which was the -20--30 Celsius with a stiff wind. What kind of data will the drones be able to collect. What are you hoping for ultimately? What I'm hoping for ultimately is to be able to fly the drones into environments where we have not been able to observe bears. One of the very important environments we don't know about is the active ice area. This is the area of ice in the spring when leaves -- ice moods and breaks up you don't have direct observation of bears in the environment because it is difficult going out to set up a hide and sit there and watch bears. The UAV can help us and give us an aerial view of what the bears are doing in the environment and how successful they are and fine scale interactions we have not been able to see before. You are from Northrop Grumman not a person who does this all the topic did you get to meet any of the bears in person? Will we got to go up to Church Hill, Manitoba, Hudson -- Hudson Bay we went to be sea ice where the polar bear's hangout to wait for two brief and we had an interaction where a curious bear came up to us and jumped onto the buggy and was about 1 foot for me and I got to hear him breathe and look them in the eyes. It was amazing. Sounds amazing. Part of what the data you want to collect with this drone has to do with climate change, with the different environment that these bears are having to contend with isn't that right? Absolutely get one thing we want to look at is what we want to look at in the future and that's the return to the ice. The bears that come off the ice in the spring on land for three, four months and they returned to the ice mid-to-late November and what's been happening with climate change is the return is becoming later and later. We do not know a lot about what the fine scale dynamics are going on with bears. What are they waiting for when ice forms. Once the bay is frozen the bears are out but we don't know when it comes to be ice forming along the coast how traffic doesn't have to be before they go out and tested and we want to try to get back dynamic nail down because it's important to understand how the changes we see this lengthening on land season will affect the bears and how soon they can get out on the Isa what type of ice is important. Is one of the thing to assess, Charlie, the actual altitude of these drones? How far away they need to be from the bear so they are not intrusive at all? Absolutely. One thing that we did assess was that. We wanted to see what the operating range would look like and where the UAV needs to sit to be out of the bears range of acoustical he and still get back fine scale, detailed information about the habitat and the sea ice so we could have happy compromise of good scientific data without copper market action with the bears. When can we see the first official flights without -- with the drone in the Arctic? We just got back last week from the Arctic we will work on setting up the data and getting ready to publicize what it will look like and find out. So it's to be announced. Yes. Speaking with Charlie Welch of research and design engineer with Northrop Grumman and Nicholas Pilfold postdoctoral associate in applied animal oncology at the standings Uber Institute for conservation research. Thank you.

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.

Corrected: March 26, 2023 at 2:29 PM PDT
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.