Drone films in Antarctic conditions

CHRIS HYDE
Last updated 13:51 21/02/2014

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A Palmerston North company has built what is thought to be the first drone successfully flown over one of Antarctica's dry valleys.

It's a feat that could help explain the effects of climate change on the valley's ecosystem and paves the way for future research.

Unmanned aerial vehicle SwampFox, designed and built by Skycam UAV in Sutton Place, survived temperatures in Taylor Valley dropping to as low as minus 14 degrees Celsius as it mapped the levels of cyanobacteria in streams and lake edges over four weeks in January and February.

Cyanobacteria grow around the edge of water in the valley and their growth and decline is thought to be a good indicator of a change in climate. "They take off like a rocket if things heat up even slightly," Auckland University of Technology professor John Brooks said.

Prof Brooks was one of the scientists responsible for operating the drone during the Waikato University-led expedition and said it had performed brilliantly.

"Part of the exercise was really to find out if it could be flown in those conditions. It was zero degrees Celsius on average and we weren't sure how the batteries or the motors or any of the equipment would perform at that temperature.

"It worked really well, we just got shortened times on the batteries, but it showed it could be done and that New Zealand technology is up there with the best."

Prof Brooks said SwampFox was probably the first drone to successfully fly in the valley, but it was possible that military-owned drones had been there before. "UAVs are getting bad press at the moment because everyone is flying them and there are civil aviation issues with that. There's also the military stigma attached to them but I think this shows that they can be a peaceful and highly effective tool for science."

SwampFox had dual digital cameras installed, one providing an infrared option, both of which took geo-referenced photos looking down on the valley.

Because no-one had done it before the photos obtained could only inform preliminary research but the results were spectacular, Prof Brooks said.

"Cyanobacteria can be seen as a grey, green, black colour and also a beige colour on the edge of lakes and streams. The fact that we can look at them from a few hundred feet in the air is something that no-one has really seen before. "You can stick a temperature gauge down and say the temperature is increasing but if we come back and map again and the cyanobacteria continue to expand over five years then we can say that climate change is having a very clear effect."

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Skycam co-director Rene Redmond said it was a privilege to see the company's technology being used on the expedition.

"It's quite a powerful UAV. It took 12 to 18 months to get the final design and develop it to where we wanted it to be."

The first time it was used was at a mine site in Queensland where the temperature was between 40C and 43C, and now the same design was being used in sub-zero temperatures, Mr Redmond said.

"That's right on the limit of the camera's capability but it's stood up to both."

- Manawatu Standard

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