Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Exploring Antarctica: 'Thermal undies' for drones

Kiwi scientists mapping Antarctic flora find novel way of keeping craft flying.
Len Gillman  with an unmanned aerial vehicle that is used to monitor changes in the Antarctic landscape.
Len Gillman with an unmanned aerial vehicle that is used to monitor changes in the Antarctic landscape.

Sewing "thermal undies" for a drone is just one way Kiwi scientists have overcome the extremes of Antarctica to capture the frozen continent's delicate plant-life from the air.

An Auckland University of Technology team have arrived at Scott Base for a three-week study combining the latest drone technology with some of Antarctica's most stunning locations.

The researchers, led by Dr Barbara Breen, have brought with them a "swarm" of unmanned aerial vehicles - or UAVs - that will be used to aerially scan the famed McMurdo Dry Valleys, Botany Bay and the area surrounding Captain Robert Scott's former hut.

All three sites are designated special protected areas - yet the impact humans have so far had on them remains largely unknown, Dr Breen said.

"We can't go back in time and eliminate what's already happened there - so we are just wanting to quantify that so we can monitor changes going forward."

The team aim to create a "baseline" picture of vegetation in the environments, which can be used for comparisons in follow-up surveys.

They will use a cutting-edge concept developed in previous studies in New Zealand and Australia, where masses of images collected from the UAVs are pieced together to render high-definition, three-dimensional profiles.

The drones will be mounted with an array of cameras, including several specially modified to capture different electro-magnetic signatures reflected from the plants below.

Once a plant - typically a moss or lichen in Antarctica - is identified from above, a small AUT-built rover will be deployed to confirm the specimen and collect a sample.

Operating in what is the driest, coldest and windiest place on Earth had its challenges, Dr Breen said; particularly the impact the polar atmosphere's freezing air had on the UAVs' batteries.

To tackle this, her team have ensured components of the largest drone - a 2.5m fixed-wing UAV - are fully enclosed and protected from the cold.

But for a propeller-driven UAV, with batteries more exposed to the air, she resorted to making a polypropylene garment to keep it warm.

"Just a little bit of hand-sewing, and we've made some thermal undies for it."

She said the study, funded by the New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute, would ultimately deliver a world-first, high-quality data set, some of which would be added to Auckland University of Technology's spectral library of ecological records.

- NZ Herald

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