Unmanned aircraft scouts ice conditions for North Slope whalers

Before spring whaling can even start up on the North Slope, crews and other community members chip away at the sea ice to make miles-long trails to open water, and hopefully, to whales. The process is done with hand tools -- mostly ice picks -- taking days or weeks, and is very labor intensive. So when researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks offered to fly a small, unmanned aircraft over the ice in hopes of finding the safest, most efficient routes to open leads, whaling captains in Barrow were all for it.

In April, a Ptarmigan -- a small hexacopter designed and built by a UAF engineering student -- was launched and flown in a grid pattern 400 feet over a section of ice about 2,600 feet by 600 feet. After the flights, a technique pioneered at UAF's Geophysical Institute called "structure from motion," the data was used to create an accurate three-dimensional map of the surface.

The result was a topographic map of sorts that allowed whalers to take a closer look at ice conditions and find the best routes to open leads and the whales that show up there. The aircraft was not used to locate whales.

"This technique is something that's been pioneered here at UAF, especially in areas like ice and snow," said Dyre Oliver Dammann, a doctoral student who, along with Eyal Saiet, a staff member for the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration and masters student in remote sensing, came up with idea to map the ice using the hexacopter. The aircraft was designed and built by UAF electrical engineering student Ben Nubar and is particularly useful for brief flights and experimenting with new instruments.

For this spring's season, which is still going strong, these 3D maps were available to crews online and for download onto phones or other devices, and were also offered as hard copies of the resulting maps.

"We provided what we call a digital elevation model, that shows where the large ridges are and where the smooth areas are," Dammann said. "From that, (they) can immediately identify potential risks."

Researchers and scientists at UAF have been working in the Arctic for years studying sea ice, climate, and creatures big and small, but they felt it was time to contribute something back directly to the people of the region. Something that would be beneficial to the local population, Dammann said.

"Researchers should always aim to give something back to the community," he said. "We've been trying to understand sea ice and dynamics that are relevant for larger aspects such as climate change, but we're also very interested in conducting research that has a direct implication for people that live there."

Whalers, or hunters in general, that use the sea ice already know a lot about how the ice behaves during spring break up and scientists rely on local knowledge when conducting research there.

"So we were trying to provide something that they can learn from that they couldn't otherwise do," Dammann said. "It's a really great relationship."

UAF started mapping whaling trails in the ice about seven years ago to help captains and their crews by identifying not only safer routes, but also more efficient routes, thus saving time and money.

"Then we approached them about flying an unmanned aircraft over and actually get the topography of the ice … and they said they were all for that."

April's flight and the subsequent maps were a test to see how the aircraft worked and what might need to be tweaked to get more useful information for the crews. A GPS unit and a high-quality camera were fixed to the copter, which was flown by an experienced helicopter pilot. The experiment was delayed a few times while the aircraft's batteries had to be replaced, something that Dammann and his colleagues are hoping to alleviate next year when they try the flight again with a fixed-wing aircraft.

This project is a collaborative effort between UAF and the Native Village of Barrow.

In 2007, the sea ice group from UAF installed a radar and a webcam to provide an uninterrupted view of the ice and while these provide important information to both scientists and locals, the view from the side and the resolution at a distance limit their usefulness. Satellite data is also available, but is cost prohibitive.

This new method offers higher-quality and more detailed models for the crews to use when scoping out the routes early in the season. It is not uncommon for crews to get stranded on ice that has broken off from landfast ice during wind events or a change in currents. This project might help protect those working out on the ice by identifying more fragile areas.

So far, the feedback has been encouraging, said UAF public information officer Sue Mitchell.

"They were very pleased with it," she said of the whaling crews. "They're looking forward to doing more next year and looking forward to using (an aircraft) that has a longer operating time.

"This was a pilot project to see if it would work."

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.