Betsy Weatherhead: You can see the kind of confused look of the seal as they’re looking up at this strange little object. You can see their eyes!
Betsy Weatherhead is describing the view from an unmanned aircraft, only one or two meters in wingspan, as it flies over the Arctic to monitor wildlife.
Betsy Weatherhead: They’re something you could have in your garage, and take out and play with if you really wanted to. We send them out over the Arctic Ocean, for long distances, often 500 miles or more, taking measurements low over the ocean, trying to figure out what’s out there, because we don’t send manned aircraft out there.
Weatherhead is a senior research scientist at UC-Boulder. She spoke to EarthSky at a science meeting in late 2009. She said it can be very dangerous to send human pilots into polar conditions. So scientists control these aircraft from the ground, gathering important data from the scientific instruments and cameras loaded on board.
Betsy Weatherhead: Sea ice has been changing dramatically over the past few years, and the mammals are affected by that – the polar bear, the walrus, the ice seal – and we don’t know exactly how they’re affected by it.
Weatherhead uses the data and images from the unmanned aircraft to count populations of Arctic species, to understand how the animals are adapting to polar warming. Weatherhead said scientists have been using unmanned aircraft for the past three years, in both the Arctic and Antarctic. The technology was adopted from the military.
Betsy Weatherhead: All of our researchers have lost colleagues out in the field. We’ve had people die, trying to collect data. It’s difficult and dangerous to be flying a manned aircraft over the Arctic. So as soon as anyone who’s been in that experience hears about unmanned aircraft, and sees what they’ve done for the military, I think it’s an obvious choice for us. That’s why scientists from Russia, Iceland, Finland, Canada, and the US have all adopted it as a way to go forward and understand the Arctic better.
When the aircraft is out flying through the cold polar air, Weatherhead said she’s “safe and toasty” inside an airplane hangar, watching the flight via GPS.
Betsy Weatherhead: We usually program it in advance. So we’ll know where we want to go, how high we want to be, and we program it to go there. But if we get some images, and say, “Oh, there’s a cluster of seals over there” or there’s possibly an interesting melt pond in the middle of the ice, we can change paths and go back and look at it.
Weatherhead said that the real value of unmanned aircraft is allowing scientists to be proactive in studying the Arctic.
Betsy Weatherhead: Everyone has been concerned about the changes that have taken place in the Arctic, and there is a bit of helplessness, about what can we do, what’s going on? I think unmanned aircraft allow us to study in greater depth and try to see if we can figure out what’s going on, what the causes are, and what if anything we can do about it. Proactive examination and understanding is what we scientists are poised and ready to do. Unmanned aircraft are just one of our tools to help us.
Learning to love science. As a producer for EarthSky, Lindsay Patterson interviews some of the world's most fascinating scientists. Through EarthSky, her work content is syndicated on some of the world's top media websites, including USAToday.com and Reuters.com. Patterson is also charged with helping to stay in steady communication with the thousands of scientists who contribute to EarthSky's work of making the voice of science heard in a noisy world. She graduated from Colorado College with a degree in creative writing, and a keen interest in all forms of journalism and media.