In the unforgiving Antarctic, drones are revolutionizing exploration and science.
Read my latest and well-received feature article for The Smithsonian/ National Air and Space Museum Air and Space Quarterly in full below or by following this link.
I am so pleased with my latest feature for Air and Space Quarterly. I would like to thank the scientists-explorers who have flown drones in Antarctica and shared their experiences with me and their amazing photographs.
It’s quiet in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, a vast frozen desert in Antarctica. The valleys are covered in loose gravel that hasn’t seen a drop of rain for nearly two million years.
And yet there is life here, if you know where to look for it. The silence in this desert at the bottom of the world is periodically interrupted by the buzzing sound of drones—flying instrument platforms that scientists are using to map the distribution of microbial mats in the arid valleys. The mats, which are multi-layered sheets of bacteria and other microorganisms, serve as sentinel organisms whose health gives hints to the effects of climate change on the whole ecosystem.
Although the work is serious, there is joy on the drone pilot’s face as a remotely piloted aircraft flies along the dirty-white, cliff-like terminus of a glacier. “It’s thrilling to fly drones in Antarctica,” says Joe Levy, an assistant professor in the earth and environmental sciences department at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. “It’s just a ton of fun.”
“It’s definitely exciting with $70,000 worth of drone and sensors coming at you,” says Paul Bealing, a geospatial science technician at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. Bealing has been using drones since 2012, and he has built fixed-wing drones for use in Antarctica. “The trickiest bit is the landing,” he says. “There are no runways in the Dry Valleys, and you are trying to avoid rocks. The fixed-wing drones have no wheels, so it’s a landing on the belly.”
Antarctica’s environment is the most extreme on our planet. “The ice-imprisoned continent covers almost 6,000,000 square miles of the Earth’s surface—nearly as much as South America,” wrote Rear Admiral Richard Byrd in National Geographic. Byrd, who led several expeditions to the continent in the early 20th century, observed: “Much of the interior is less known than the sunlit side of the moon.” It was only when explorers and scientists took to the skies, risking their lives in the primitive flying machines of the 1920s, that the continent began to give up its secrets.
Even today, Antarctica remains a dangerous place for humans to fly, due to the extreme climate, magnetic fields that interfere with instruments, and the absence of infrastructure to assist with navigation and landing. Crashes have claimed hundreds of lives over the decades, most recently in 2019, when a Chilean air force C-130 crashed in Drake Passage with the loss of 38 passengers and crew.
Now, an aerial revolution is reinvigorating what audacious aviators like Byrd started. In March 2008, scientists at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) completed the first-ever series of flights by uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) in Antarctica. Each flight by a custom, university-built drone lasted 40 minutes and covered around 28 miles. Other than a manually controlled takeoff and landing, the drone flew a programmed flight plan. Fourteen years later, rotorcraft, delta wings, VTOL fixed-wing drones, and airplane-like drones that resemble cartoonish flying machines in The Adventures of Tintin are regularly put through their paces in the skies above Antarctica by their scientist-pilots during the all-too-brief summer fieldwork season.
Antarctica is a vast natural laboratory, ready to yield copious amounts of data. There’s a million years’ worth of information about Earth’s ancient climate and atmosphere embedded in the ice and frozen soil. Today, the 26,500,000 gigatons of ice covering the continent has the potential to raise global sea levels by 187 feet should it melt—which makes Antarctica a crucial venue in understanding and predicting the effects of climate change. The surprise collapse of the Conger ice shelf in east Antarctica in March, within days of record high temperatures, shows how much more needs to be understood and how quickly.
Just as the miniaturization of technology has made it possible for engineers to design small cube satellites capable of exploring space on a low budget, the emergence of drones has offered unprecedented access to Earth’s last frontier. The up to $100,000 worth of instruments that even a $100 drone can carry enables scientists to explore Antarctica without pricey, polluting flights in fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. A drone equipped with the right technology can help captains of supply ships see over the sea ice for tens of miles ahead, cartographers to map inaccessible islands better than from satellite imagery, and scientists to test waters from remote lakes never before sampled.
The powerful cameras and sensors drones carry can be used to count penguin colonies in real time, measure the health of moss beds, and record the first signs that land is sinking or that algae blooms are spreading. These shifts in the ecosystem serve as subtle warning signs that the rate of melting ice is increasing. And the research drones conduct isn’t confined to land: Equipped with specialized sensors, they can measure air pressure and turbulence.
“It feels like being on the forefront of a revolution,” says Levy. “Drones give us a completely different way of seeing the continent. Geologists are always trying to climb the highest peak to look down on the landscape and see what’s going on, but drones let you do that anywhere, anytime, and however many times you want.”
Off the Shelf
Scientists are achieving amazing things using off-the-shelf Chinese rotorcraft, which are reliable, relatively cheap, and easily replaced. For other tasks that need, for example, a longer distance or flight time, researchers can have drones purpose-built for them or build them themselves. “We were getting six to 10 minutes battery life out of a multirotor, and we were going to be constantly changing batteries, so we needed to come up with an alternative,” says Paul Bealing. “I built a bunch of fixed-wing drones, and they flew well down there. They are great if you have a long distance to cover or need a long flight time.”
Chris Klick, whose company Ritewing RC specializes in custom designs, built Bealing a delta-wing pusher prop that was as powerful as “a rocket ship,” says Bealing. And Bealing discovered the massive (by drone standards) My Twin Dream—a Chinese-built twin-engine aircraft that can carry a great of deal of equipment (a maximum takeoff weight of 13 pounds).
“It is much more fun to fly fixed-wing aircraft, but it’s not about the flying, it is about collecting data,” says Bealing. The scientists are seeking the perfect balance between payload, range, and battery life, as well as portability. But you can’t have it all. While the fixed-wing aircraft can fly farther, researchers can’t put instruments beneath them since the craft don’t have wheels and therefore land on their bellies. By contrast, when Bealing flew an octocopter, he was able to fit it with a “big, very big, snow ice radar underneath.”
The Americans, New Zealanders, and the British aren’t the only ones flying UAVs on the frozen continent. Two research stations operated by Spain somehow cling to the rocky and inhospitable Deception Island, which is the ring-like caldera of an active volcano in the South Shetland Islands (close to the Antarctic Peninsula), and to Livingstone Island, with its bleak, icy mountainous interior.
It was on Deception Island that the flying-machine age of Antarctic exploration definitively arrived, when on November 16, 1928, Australian George Hubert Wilkins made the first flight in Antarctica, taking off in a Lockheed Vega for a 20-minute flight.
Nearly a century later, five Spanish researchers for the government-sponsored polar research project PiMetAn have carried out more than 100 drone flights over these islands and other parts of Antarctica to survey penguin colonies and perform other tasks. PiMetAn’s drone air force includes some five multicopters and a VTOL drone airplane that can fly autonomously for four hours. “Really, for us, the use of UAV and sensors onboard has meant a revolution for our scientific purposes because it has allowed us to improve the techniques of study, the quality and amount of data, and the acquisition of samples from inaccessible or very dangerous areas,” says the Spanish team in an email. “They have saved us time and resources and helped us minimize our impact on the flora and fauna.”
Meanwhile, from its Rothera Research Station, the British Antarctic Survey continues to pioneer the use of remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS)—as the organization refers to drones—on the frozen continent for filming and science. RPAS also serve as scouts. “Our new polar vessel has now got a couple of RPAS on board, and the reason for that is that from the bridge, you can see 12 miles to the horizon, but when you are navigating in ice, you want to see further,” says Pete Bucktrout, BAS senior creative services manager and UAV pilot. “Although we can get some satellite imagery, there’s a delay in receiving it. Instead, if we stick a UAV straight up vertically above the vessel, we can see for tens of miles, in effect over the horizon.” They now have a tether for their drones, which means they can hold their position above the ship for far longer than just 15 minutes. “Similarly, we have vehicles traveling across Antarctica for science purposes, and when they are in an unknown area, they will stick up an RPAS in the air so they can see where the crevasses are,” says Bucktrout.
Such successes obscure the fact that it’s still a tricky business to fly drones at the ends of the Earth. “There’s definitely challenges to flying in Antarctica,” says Bealing. Cold is a big problem because batteries don’t hold charge so well and flight durations are shorter; sensors need specific temperatures to function; and controller screens can’t be seen in the intense sunlight. And 50 to 60 mph winds can endure for days at a time.
“No drone is going to be great in that,” says Levy. Making matters worse, he says, “sand and dust everywhere can generate static electricity.” Researchers need to carry their own generators with them to charge the drones (or additional batteries) and a tent to keep the drones out of the wind and dust when they are not flying.
Then there is the remoteness. With no internet, there has to be a great deal more advance planning—a task made difficult by the “lack of maps and topographies of the flight areas, which is a challenge when preparing flight missions,” say the Spanish researchers.
Flying at the South Pole also plays havoc with magnetometers, which provide data that enables multirotor drones to maintain their orientation. That’s why UAVs in Antarctica have a tendency to “toilet bowl”—a wobbling motion going round and round. “It was really frustrating for the camera guys who would try to get a nice shot on a particular angle,” says Bealing.
In advance of his trip to Antarctica, Bealing tried to do as much testing as possible to ensure all the components would work in such a harsh environment, but it still wasn’t enough. “We have a walk-in freezer which I would say goes down to minus 20 [Celsius], and we didn’t think it was going to get any colder in the summer in the Dry Valleys, where it’s usually around minus ten, minus five,” he says. “The only thing I wasn’t able to test was my catapult launcher with rubber bungees that I would use to launch my fixed-wing drone. So the very first time I launched in Antarctica, the bungees got too cold, they lost their bungee-ness, and they pretty much chucked the drone on the ground.”
Finally, there is the challenge that all drone pilots dread most: paperwork. Drones are regulated on every continent, and Antarctica is no exception. “A lot of scientists just want to grab a drone, stick a sensor on it, go to Antarctica, and collect data,” says Bealing. But, as Levy cautions, there’s a huge stack of forms they must fill in first, “talking about things like emergency procedures, communications procedures, and when will you fly, where will you fly.” Also, existing regulations tend to be narrow in scope. “Our flights have to follow the Spanish navigation laws, which are not always adapted to Antarctic flight conditions,” says the Spanish team.
For a continent so large and devoid of human life, the requirement that scientists must apply for permission to use drones in Antarctica from their respective governments can seem unrelenting, limiting, and time-consuming. Says Levy: “The whole point of flying drones in Antarctica is to discover things you couldn’t discover from the ground, and so the frustrating thing can be if you’re at the end of your operations area, and you discover that there is something interesting just beyond that, you can’t go to have a look without new clearances.”
The Do-It-All Drone?
In addition to sampling soil, microorganisms, and atmospheric gases that would otherwise be out of reach to scientists, drones could have a wider logistical application: transporting supplies and people. “I think it’s the next frontier for drones in Antarctica, and it is a lot safer if you could send a drone out across the ice shelf to help drag fuel to the South Pole than sending people,” says Levy. Automated eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) flying taxis are under development worldwide, and it’s possible some will find their way to Antarctica.
“Antarctica has enjoyed the fruits of the consumer revolution, but Antarctica is about as extreme a test that you can get for using drones and for new ways of exploring extreme environments, which then feeds back into the wider technological development,” says Levy. “It’s not just the beneficiary. It’s also a kind of proving ground for it, and a place for thinking about new ways that you can use old tools.”
If Professor Mirko Kovac, director of the aerial robotics laboratory at Imperial College London and head of the materials and technology center of robotics at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, has his way, scientists will no longer need separate drones for air, underwater, and water surface and instead will have one drone that can work in all three environments.
His project, ProteusDrone, named after the Greek shape-shifting sea god, aims to build just that. Kovac has just been awarded a two-million-euro grant from Horizon Europe, the European Union’s key funding program for research and innovation, to develop shape-shifting drones that could be used in challenging environments, such as the Arctic and Antarctic to study climate change. Bimodal drones that can operate in two environs are already under development, but a drone that could function in all three milieus—water surface, underwater, and air—represents another level of complexity.
“Drones can currently sample water, but they are not metamorphic,” says Kovac. “They’re not changing their morphology like many animals do when they transition between air and water. The project will study and develop methods of metamorphosis, so that the drone has a structure in the air, and then changes this structure and adapts the propulsion system to move underwater or sail on the water surface by using soft robotics wings and embedded sensing and machine learning to change its aero-structures.”
Soft robotics focuses on the development of technologies that more closely resemble living organisms with higher levels of robustness and adaptability compared to traditional, rigid robots. “The role of robotics and AI in environmental sciences is just starting to be understood,” says Kovac. When these robots are deployed, they can be controlled by a scientist on the other side of the planet. “We have already demonstrated that a drone operator in London can operate a drone in Switzerland performing environmental sensing tasks,” he says.
While such developments might prove a boon for exploration, drones operated from afar could also take a toll on the scientific comradery that has characterized international research in Antarctica. “It’s awesome being on the airplane with the folks going to the Italian base and talking with them about what they’re doing,” says Levy. “Seeing the Korean base and the Chinese base being built and having the researchers come through. It’s like an international conference at the smallest conference center at the end of the Earth.”
Unfortunately, storm clouds are gathering over the future of the continent. The Treaty of Antarctica committed 12 nations (now 46) to a demilitarized, peaceful continent based on the principle of international scientific cooperation. The agreement froze territorial claims that are now thawing along with the melting glaciers as governments begin arguing over the rights to the mineral wealth that soon will be easier to extract.
“The problem is that drones can be used to carry out scientific research, spy on other countries, and identify resources for future exploitation, and the tensions over the dual-use nature of the technology are only likely to grow as the number and size of the drones used in Antarctica grow,” says Klaus Dodds, a professor of geopolitics at the University of London who has written about border disputes and the political history of Antarctica.
For better or worse, the Drone Era has come to the last continent on Earth.
Mark Piesing is an aviation journalist and the author of N-4 Down: The Hunt for the Arctic Airship Italia (Mariner Books, 2021).