Engineers at Northrop Grumman are working with scientists at the San Diego Zoo on Operation #PolarEye, a collaboration to study how the changing climate is impacting polar bear habitats.
For nearly 50 years, scientists relied on satellite images to study polar bears, but the information was limited, and researchers were still sometimes tasked with having direct interaction with the animals, which can be very dangerous.
The researchers wanted a better, safer way to observe the bears, and Northrop's engineers believe they have found a solution in an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS), or drone, that could stand up to the extreme arctic weather and collect critical data on polar bear habitats. The team is building a rugged hexacopter with six rotors, a navigation system that features triple redundancy, battery packs, and a payload bay that can hold a range of various sensors, including high-res/multispectral cameras, laser altimeters, and an ice-penetrating radar.
The engineers like the design because it can take off and land vertically, and they believe it can stand up to the harsh conditions. Right now, they are working to find a way to improve the protection of the electronics from the extreme cold, as well as to extend the battery range.
The drone will live-stream video to the ground station so researchers at the remote facility in Northern Canada can develop an algorithm that enables the drone to identify polar bears autonomously.
The first expedition is set for mid-November when the team will travel to the Churchill Northern Studies Center located on the Hudson Bay coast in Churchill, Manitoba.