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Drone to help guide fuel ship into Nome

Mary Pemberton
The Russian tanker Renda transits through broken Bering Sea ice Jan. 9, 2012. The Coast Guard Cutter Healy is breaking ice and escorting the Renda to the remote village of Nome to deliver 1.3 million gallons of petroleum products to Nome residents.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy and the Renda are approximately 110 miles south of Nome when this image was made Jan. 9, 2012, and are expected to arrive in Nome in the near future.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
The Russian-flagged tanker Renda steams toward Nome, Alaska, through a path in the Bering Sea ice broken up by the Coast Guard Cutter Healy Jan. 6, 2012.
Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
A Coast Guard Cutter Healy crewmember takes a moment to watch the Russian-flagged tanker Renda steam through the ice in the North Bering Sea while the cutter crew escorts the tanker to Nome Jan. 6, 2012. The 420-foot Seattle-based Healy is the Coast Guard's newest and most technologically advanced polar icebreaker and is currently the service's only operational polar icebreaker.
Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy crew breaks ice in the Bering Sea as the Russian-flagged tanker Renda, approximately 19 miles northwest of Nunivak Island, makes their way to Nome, Alaska, to deliver more than 1.3 million gallons of fuel to the city Jan. 6, 2012. The 420-foot Seattle-based Healy and tanker Renda are approximately 19 miles northwest of Nunivak Island. U.S. Coast Guard photo by cutter Healy.
U.S. Coast Guard
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy escorts the Russian-flagged tanker Renda 250 miles south of Nome Jan. 6, 2012. The vessels are transiting through ice up to five-feet thick in this area.
Photo courtesy Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis / U.S. Coast Guard
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice around the Russian-flagged tanker Renda 250 miles south of Nome Jan. 6, 2012. The Healy is the Coast Guard's only currently operating polar icebreaker.
Photo courtesy Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis / U.S. Coast Guard
The Russian-flagged tanker Renda carrying more than 1.3 million gallons of fuel for the city of Nome steams through a path in the ice of the Bering Sea Jan. 6, 2012.
Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

As a Russian fuel tanker plows through the frozen Bering Sea on its way to Nome, it has been getting help from an unlikely source: a drone that flies overhead and sends images of ice back to researchers onshore.

The camera-equipped drone looks like a smoke detector with wings and legs. It glides on 20-minute missions from the beach in Nome, ranging from 10 feet to 320 feet above the ice, and its images can be instantly viewed on a tablet-type computer screen.

The tanker is bound for Nome, a town of 3,500 residents that missed its final pre-winter delivery of fuel by barge when a big storm swept the region last fall. Without the delivery of 1.3 million gallons, the city could run short of fuel before a barge delivery becomes possible in late spring.

Researchers were using the 2.5-pound drone to provide a large picture of the ice in Nome harbor in hopes of getting the tanker as close to shore as possible, said Greg Walker, unmanned aircraft program manager for the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Geophysical Institute.

The 370-foot tanker is equipped with a hose more than a mile long for offloading, and pictures from the drone also will be used to figure out the best way to lay the hose.

The Healy, the Coast Guard's only functioning icebreaker, has been accompanying the tanker through the Bering Sea.

Progress was stalled by thick ice and strong ocean currents on Tuesday. The vessels made nine miles but drifted with the ice while at rest for a total gain of just six miles, Coast Guard spokesman David Mosley said.

Ice conditions were slightly improved on Wednesday. The Coast Guard said the two vessels were in densely concentrated ice in the Bering Sea about 95 miles from Nome.

Meanwhile, a researcher assisting in the mission to deliver the fuel has discovered a 25-foot ice pressure ridge at the entrance to the Nome's harbor.

The pressure ridges are created when the pack ice from offshore pushes against the stationary shore ice, creating thick ridges somewhat like icebergs, scientists said.

The top of the ridge sits about 5 feet above the frozen surface but the rest extends well down into the ocean, the Geophysical Institute's Andy Mahoney said. The ridge is too big for the tanker to get past but it shouldn't prevent offloading through the hose.

As the tanker approaches Nome, the pressure ridges actually might come in handy as they are natural fault lines, Walker said. If the tanker can break the ice away from the ridges, it could open up a pathway.

Webcam on Coast Guard icebreaker Healy
By MARY PEMBERTON
Associated Press