Invasion of the Drones: Unmanned Aircraft Take Off in Polar Exploration

A multinational, robotic air corps is quietly invading the polar regions of the earth. Some catapult from ships; some launch from running pickup trucks; and some take off the old-fashioned way, from icy airstrips. The aircraft range from remote-controlled propeller planes–of the type found at Toys “R” Us–to sophisticated, high-altitude jets. All are specially outfitted, not with weapons but with scientific instruments.

Unmanned aircraft have made headlines in the mountains of Afghanistan, but the technology has quickly trickled down to scientists seeking a less expensive, safer way to study the earth’s poles. Researchers have begun to put unmanned aerial systems, or UASs, to a variety of tasks, from monitoring the ozone layer to counting seal populations. Thanks to lower costs and improved technologies, “it’s absolutely exploded in the past couple of years,” says Elizabeth Weatherhead, who is an environmental scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder.[More]

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