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San Diego Researchers Use Drone To Study Polar Bears And Arctic Ice

San Diego Zoo Researchers and engineers from Northrop Grumman fly their arctic drone over ice in Canada's Hudson Bay on Nov 22, 2017.
Source: San Diego Zoo Global
San Diego Zoo Researchers and engineers from Northrop Grumman fly their arctic drone over ice in Canada's Hudson Bay on Nov 22, 2017.

San Diego scientists successfully deployed and used a drone designed to help track polar bears and examine the ice they live on.

The arctic drone was born out of a collaboration between San Diego Zoo Global and Northrop Grumman, a San Diego based defense contractor.

The team built a six-rotor copter that carries sophisticated scientific instruments in a package that can withstand extreme cold.


That drone got its first field test in late November, in the arctic environment of Canada's Hudson Bay.

Researchers use satellites for wide-scale views of the ice, but that's just a surface snapshot. Most existing field research happens in the spring when the ice is thickest.

"We can't do that kind of work in the fall because the ice is warming and it is very thin. So we don't know a lot about the interactions with the bears as they come off the land and that first sea ice. What they're looking for. How effective that sea ice is for feeding," said Nicholas Pilfold, San Diego Zoo Global Researcher.

San Diego Zoo Partners With Northrop Grumman To Study Polar Bears

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The drone changes the equation, giving researchers a tool that allows for up-close fieldwork in the fall.


"So with this unit, we can go and measure that sea ice for the first time in fine scale, and track polar bears and try to understand what is happening during the migration from land to sea ice," Pilfold said.

Even in November, the Canadian bay's environment is harsh. Researchers had to fashion a special wrap so the controls could be operated in the cold climate. It looked like a large glove for the drone controller and the person flying the craft just slips their hands into the sides.

"It was an adjustment for our team as well. We had to take in account what it was like for all of us to be out there as the drone was operating. For us to be out there, operate it and fly it and make sure everything was functioning properly," said Charlie Welch, Northrop Grumman engineer.

The vehicle flew 11 sea ice missions, collecting a variety of habitat data that will be processed now that the team is back home.

Engineers and researchers hope to adapt the technology for other habitats like rain forests.