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Drones to save the Arctic sea ice

Arctic sea ice is melting more quickly than researchers anticipated. ÅF is about to examine how drones can be used in extreme polar environments to support research on global warming. “The combination of drones and sustainability is really exciting, and the opportunities are huge,” says Tor Ericson, Business Manager and initiator of the project at ÅF.

The rapidly melting sea ice in the Arctic is one of the most noticeable consequences of global warming. To prevent a climate catastrophe, a better picture is needed of the situation in the areas around the Arctic that are both susceptible to climate change and difficult to access. ÅF will help researchers involved in a large new EU project called Interact to address the issue of whether drones can be used to collect more and better data about the polar zone.

The project that ÅF is undertaking starts in January and will continue throughout 2017. The first phase will consist of ÅF meeting the heads of the research stations in Rejkjavik and interviewing leading climate researchers. The initial study will be extensive and is intended to provide a clearer picture of what is needed as well as mapping out current drone technology and applications.

“We are examining all types of drone technology, possible types of sensors, data processing flows and legislation in different countries,” says Tor. “This is going to make ÅF an expert in the field.” The study will also identify the challenges to be overcome so that drones can be used in extreme environments such as the Arctic.

The project is being directed by Tomas Gustafsson, project manager at ÅF, and it entails carrying out a whole host of activities. These include the involvement of three students from KTH, the Royal Institute of Technology, through their degree projects. The plan is to use the analyses and results produced during the first six months of 2017 as a starting point and to do live tests in the next phase during next winter. “That’s when we’ll be sending drones to the Arctic,” says Tor.

Currently, there are two primary ways for researchers to collect measurement data: either by satellite from space or manually in the field, both of which have their limitations. Drones enable more high-resolution images and more detailed information about a larger area to be collected, which may mean that environmental changes are detected more quickly.

Conditions in the Arctic – the harsh climate combined with a sparse population – make the area ideal for testing the technology.

“Drones that can manage this can manage most things,” says Tor. “What we hope to do is to bring together drone manufacturers and the research community, and thereby give researchers the opportunity to gather more knowledge and expertise than they have today, and giving drone manufacturers the opportunity to develop better solutions. It’s a really exciting project.”