San Diego Zoo Global, Northrop Grumman Deploying Drones for Polar Bear Conservation

San Diego Zoo Global scientists and Northrop Grumman Corp. engineers are teaming up to use unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to advance the understanding of sea ice dynamics in a changing climate and the impacts on polar bear behavior.

Now in year two of this effort, the team spent 2016 testing and validating autonomous flight technology to better understand the performance of drones in remote areas with extreme weather conditions. For their upcoming mission in November – Operation #PolarEye – the scientists will be able to collect critical data using a new habitat monitoring system, a hexacopter cabable of vertical takeoff and landing and flying in harsh conditions.

The platform includes a triple-redundant navigation system, high-voltage battery packs and a custom payload bay to hold a range of integrated sensors. The Operation #PolarEye technical team is also working to develop a ruggedized Arctic structure to protect their electronics and extend battery range in extreme cold.

“There are few studies of polar bears based on direct observation. With the development of this autonomous system, we are hoping to gain a perspective into polar bear lives rarely seen before,” says Dr. Nicholas Pilfold, scientist in Population Sustainability at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. “This data will ultimately help inform conservation strategies for the species.”

Since the late 1970s, scientists have used satellite imagery to evaluate sea ice habitat that is critical to polar bear survival, and they have used a wide range of methods to study polar bears in their habitat, the partners explain in a press release. Though it is highly valuable, satellite imagery has limitations, and traditional research methods can require handling of polar bears or direct observation – which can be dangerous for researchers.

The partners say the autonomous UAS will be used to provide a more detailed, finer-scale view of sea ice habitat. Importantly, it also offers the potential to observe polar bears without disturbing the animals or posing a risk to humans.

San Diego Zoo Global’s science team (L-R: Dr. James Sheppard, Dr. Megan Owen, and Dr. Nicholas Pilfold) works with the Northrop Grumman technical team in the field to refine their sensor suite to meet the needs of their Arctic conservation efforts.

“The latest, innovative technology can have a significant impact on this program,” comments Charlie Welch, Northrop Grumman’s technical lead for Operation #PolarEye. “We are using new techniques in prototyping and rapid product development to deliver a system scientists need to better understand ice pack and polar bear behavior.”

During the mission, the team will live-stream video to the ground station so they can operate a developmental autonomous polar bear recognition algorithm – which they hope will notify scientists when a polar bear is spotted to allow for easier monitoring on the ice. The team will be operating four integrated sensors from their vehicle, including high-resolution and multispectral cameras, a laser altimeter, and ice-penetrating radar.

The Arctic expedition is planned for mid-November. The Northrop Grumman-San Diego Zoo Global team will operate from the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, located along the Hudson Bay coastline in Churchill, Manitoba, and a remote research facility located on the Knife Delta.

The work of San Diego Zoo Global includes on-site wildlife conservation efforts at the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The work of San Diego Zoo is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.

Operation #PolarEye team member fits the 3D printed thermal shell that will be used to insulate the hexacopter during Arctic flight missions.


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