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UAS in Antarctica: At the Extreme Edge


Battling sub-zero temperature and fierce wind speed, an unmanned aircraft system helps meteorological research in the harshest environs of Antarctica

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) are well suited for both military and non-military applications deemed too “dull, dirty or dangerous” for manned assets. But how do UAS perform in some of the harshest conditions ?

Where no man dares
AAI Unmanned Aircraft Systems, an operating unit of Textron Systems, has sent its Aerosonde Small UAS and crew members into the frigid climate of Antarctica twice to support meteorological research by the University of Colorado’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences. The University of Colorado team is studying Antarctic polynyas, areas of open water surrounded by sea ice.

The most recent deployment took place in late 2012. Each Aerosonde aircraft was equipped to measure pressure, temperature, relative humidity, winds, net radiation, surface temperature and ice thickness. The crew directed the aircraft through low-level flights around 300 feet above the water’s surface to measure wind speed, temperature and moisture in an area called Terra Nova Bay. Th is site was chosen because of the particularly strong coastal katabatic winds present there, as well as its wide expanse of polynyas.

Launching from an ice runway, the aircraft conducted beyond-line-of-site operations of up to 18 hours, more than 310 miles or 500 km from the launch site, in temperatures as low as minus 37 degrees Celsius and winds up to 81 miles per hour. Altogether, the aircraft logged 168 flight hours in these unfavorable conditions.

In 2009, a six-week exploration of the katabatic winds present on the coast of Antarctica allowed researchers to generate detailed, 3-D maps to help study their relationship to sea ice formation. Apart from meteorological instruments to measure pressure, temperature, relative humidity, winds, net radiation, surface temperature and ice thickness, AAI also integrated satellite communications equipment onto the Aerosonde aircraft to enable beyond-line-of-sight aircraft control.

Flying with the hurricane
As part of its previous work with NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an Aerosonde aircraft flew within Hurricane Noel in November 2007, the first unmanned aircraft to explore a hurricane’s eye and eye wall. The 17-hour, 27-minute flight duration was a record for unmanned aircraft hurricane missions, and the aircraft gathered data from as low as 300 feet above the ocean’s surface during the weather event. An earlier Aerosonde configuration was the first unmanned aircraft to cross the Atlantic Ocean in 1998. The aircraft successfully completed a 2,000-mile, 26-hour flight, landing in a grass field in Scotland after taking off from Bell Island, Newfoundland. In addition to being the first trans-Atlantic flight by an unmanned airplane, the 29-pound aircraft became the smallest aircraft of any kind to cross the Atlantic.