All around the world, Unoccupied Aircraft Systems (AKA, drones) are becoming useful scientific instruments. With the technological and economic push-pull of military and consumer demand, drones are becoming ubiquitous and cheap. Cheap enough for poverty stricken scientists to use.
Small drones have many advantages besides cost. They can carry cameras and other instruments to extend the view of science teams by many kilometers. They fly low, and can, indeed, touch down if needed. With advances in control systems, it is becoming reasonable to operate flocks of them, to cover even more ground.
Many groups around the world are booting up this technology (E.g., reports by the US Marine Mammal Commission  and a coalition in New Zeeland ).
This week the US National Science Foundation announced funding of the Drones in Marine Science and Conservation lab at Duke University, which is specifically aimed at monitoring animals in Antarctica.
The advantages are obvious. Antarctica is huge, far away, and hard to get to. Satellites are blinded by cloud cover, and limited in resolution. Aircraft can only operate a few days per year, and are awfully expensive. Drones offer the advantages of aerial surveying at a reasonable cost.
As the video makes clear, the basic use is similar to civilian and military scouting, with the advantage that the penguins will neither shoot nor sue. 🙂
These drones are a bit more complicated than the toys under the Christmas tree, because they are equipped with a variety of instruments, potentially radar, lidar, multispectral cameras, and chemical samplers. As the NSF article points out, they “can even be used to sample breath from individual whales”.
The thrust of the NSF funding is to pull together all the rest of the picture, namely data analysis, visualization, and archiving the data. The project also contemplates training and other assistance to help future projects that want to employ drones.
This is pretty neat.
- Lorenzo Fiori, Ashray Doshi, Emmanuelle Martinez, Mark B. Orams, and Barbara Bollard-Breen, The Use of Unmanned Aerial Systems in Marine Mammal Research. Remote Sensing, 9 (6) 2017. http://www.mdpi.com/2072-4292/9/6/543
- Marine Mammal Commission, Development and Use of UASs by the National Marine Fisheries Service for Surveying Marine Mammals. Bethesda, 2016. https://www.mmc.gov/wp-content/uploads/UASReport.pdf