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Coast Guard successfully launches, lands first Arctic drone

Matthew F. Smith | KNOM
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice in the Nome Harbor Jan. 13, 2012. The Coast Guard successfully launched and landed a drone aboard the Healy in August 2014. Charly Hengen / U.S. Coast Guard

The U.S. Coast Guard has launched and successfully landed an unmanned aircraft -- popularly known as a drone -- from an icebreaker trawling the Arctic Ocean.

The drone launch and landing -- the first of its kind from an icebreaker, Coast Guard officials say -- took place Aug. 18 on the deck of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, the same vessel that carved a path through the ice for a January 2012 winter fuel delivery to Nome.

The drone launch brought scientists at the Coast Guard Research and Development Center based in New London, Conn., together to work with researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. Operators with Aerovironment, designers of the drone, were on hand to pilot the machine, which looked like a miniature airplane.

The drone, a “Puma All Environment UAS,” or “unmanned aircraft system,” flew from the Healy’s bow as part of the Coast Guard’s “Oil in Ice” exercise, and as a test of the machine’s abilities in Arctic environments. Operators also used the drone’s infrared and electro-optical camera to provide video of the exercise’s simulated oil spill.

Last year scientists launched the Puma drone from the deck of the Healy, but this year the drone was able to land back on the vessel -- albeit roughly. Video of the drone’s flight shows a hard landing back on the Healy, with the craft nosing down sharply and hitting the deck with enough force to break its wings off its body.

This article originally appeared on KNOM Radio Mission, a Nome-based radio station sharing stories from around Western Alaska. It is republished here with permission.