Scientists studying the behavior of the world's ice sheets – and the future implications of ice-sheet behavior for global sea-level rise – may soon have a new airborne tool that will allow radar measurements that previously would have been prohibitively expensive or difficult to carry out with manned aircraft.
According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), in a paper published in the March/April edition of IEEE Geoscience and Remote Sensing Magazine, researchers at the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS) at the University of Kansas note that they have successfully tested the use of a compact radar system integrated on a small, lightweight unmanned aircraft system (UAS) to look through the ice and map the topography underlying rapidly moving glaciers in West Antarctica.
The aircraft, the NSF says, has a takeoff weight of about 38.5 kilograms and range of approximately 100 kilometers. The foundation adds that the radar system weighs only 2 kilograms, and the antenna is structurally integrated into the wing of the aircraft.
The airborne maneuverability of the UAS enables the tight flight patterns required for fine-scale imaging, the NSF adds, and the aircraft can be used to collect data over flight tracks about five meters apart to allow for more thorough coverage of a given area.
‘We're excited by the performance we saw from our radar and UAS during the field campaign,’ comments Rick Hale, associate professor of aerospace engineering and associate director of technology for CReSIS. ‘The results of this effort are significant, in that the miniaturized radar integrated into a UAS promises to make this technology more broadly accessible to the research community.’
The foundation reports that the researchers will begin analyzing the data collected during this field season, miniaturizing the radar system further and reducing its weight to 1.5 kilograms while increasing the UAS radar transmitting power. In the coming months, they will also perform additional test flights in Kansas to further evaluate the avionics and flight-control systems, as well as optimize the radar and transmitting systems.
Either this year or next, the NSF says the researchers plan to deploy the UAS in Greenland to collect data over areas with extremely rough surfaces and fast-flowing glaciers.
Photo courtesy of the National Science Foundation and University of Kansas