Carl Robinson, Airborne Survey Engineer for the British Antarctic Survey Team, joined the discussions at the latest Civic Drone Centre workshop last week. As one of the key speakers, he brought a unique aspect to proceedings, looking at how UAVs have enhanced the ability to work in such extreme conditions.
“Everything we do is an enabler to do science down there,” said Carl. With so many aspects to consider, such as the wildlife and environment, reliable technology can help the information gathering process in a way that is cost effective and less invasive.
Unlike other areas where the use of UAVs is heavily restricted, or in some cases banned, the Antarctic treaty allows scientific investigations to be carried out within its boundaries. This draws scientists and researchers from around the world, encouraging collaborative work to take place.
“A lot of differences are put aside in Antarctica,” said Carl. The various teams across five research stations, two ships and five aircraft, work on a basis of complementary trading, offering their skills in return for supplies and materials.
Now the BAS team have set their sights on developing a fleet of UAVs. This move will allow long-term systematic surveys and verification surveys to be carried out whilst expanding accessibility, reducing mission costs and lessening any disturbance to wildlife. Carl expressed the importance in taking all these factors into consideration, particularly as “fuel can be as expensive as a single malt whisky” in Antarctica.
The multiple functions of UAVs allow the team to use them in a variety of research areas. From monitoring turbulence fluxes between atmosphere and sea ice and sea ice reconnaissance to producing surveys on penguin behaviour and population. UAVs are “a platform to complement” their existing resources, said Carl, as they can “stand alone or work with the assets [they] already have.”
Carl joined the BAS team ten years ago, after beginning his career with BAE systems. “We are very diverse in the jobs we do,” said Carl, who is not only an integral part of the survey team but can also be working on a variety of other projects from radar design to shipping elements.
Taking on the extreme conditions of the southernmost continent has allowed him to appreciate the sensory aspects of working in a peaceful environment with no pollution. With vivid memories of being right on the edge of a plateau during his last research project, dubbed ‘The Italian Job’, he found himself stood at “the one place on earth that is completely silent.”
However, the extremities of temperatures that plummet as low as minus 30 can sometimes take its toll on both the team and their equipment.
Adapting UAVs to be able to operate in extreme conditions takes a lot of consideration. Such low temperatures can cause batteries to lose power twice as fast, making reliable and robust technology an essential element for survey consistency.
“We would never reinvent the wheel,” said Carl. “We take readily available equipment and make small adaptations,” improving its functionality.
BAS issues their own guidelines for piloting UAVs and provide ongoing training prior and during investigation missions. Although the Antarctic treaty has no legislated UAV guidelines, the Scientific Committee of Antarctic Research (SCAR), the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs (COMNAP) and other national programmes have many guidelines of their own in place. These can require permits and risk assessments. BAS have partially addressed this by having specific areas where their teams can test and fly UAVs for recreational purposes, preventing their use from “going underground”.
For the research teams, the future will involve modifying and integrating additional UAVs, providing training and embarking on further science missions. Alongside this, BAS will continue to report, create and adapt guidelines for operational environment constraints.
With the Civic Drone Centre launch workshop drawing in numerous experts in UAV technology, Carl was able take into consideration how methods used by his team have relevance to others’ and how the process of other projects could potentially impact their work in the Antarctic.
“It’s good to find out what people’s expectations are and what they are interested in.” said Carl.