Into the cold zone: UAV platform flies high in Antarctica

July 31, 2016  - By
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In February, mechatronics lead Kevin Bass of Intuitive Machines and contracted pilot Mike Laible successfully flew multiple runs with an unmanned aerial vehicle platform, Tiburon Jr., on the coast of Antarctica.

The long-range Tiburon Jr. takes Antarctic ice sheet studies to new heights.

The long-range Tiburon Jr. takes Antarctic ice sheet studies to new heights.

From Wilkins Aerodrome in the southeast, the team launched Tiburon Jr. and collected valuable testing and environmental data. Battling harsh weather and constantly changing conditions, the team flew the UAV several times, allowing tests of all aspects of its platform.

“These flights provided us with valuable insights into cold-weather flight characteristics,” Bass said. “We successfully demonstrated that our onboard flight system is hardened the proper amount for the harsh environment.”

The onboard software also proved to be robust as it dealt with sensors whose response to the extreme conditions was not previously known.

With an 80-knot cruise speed and a 15-minute assembly, deploying a Tiburon Jr. UAV saved time and is significantly safer than manned flights in hazardous environments such as Antarctica, Bass explained.

Tiburon Jr. can be assembled in 15 minutes, an important feature in extreme environments.

Tiburon Jr. can be assembled in 15 minutes, an important feature in extreme environments.

The carbon-fiber Tiburon Jr. has a swappable nose cone, enabling a modular ISR sensor pod including visible, infrared and multispectral options. A remote ground station can accompany the ground transportation trailer for a portable stand-alone solution. Aircraft operations can be fully autonomous or man-in-the-loop.

The flight was conducted in cooperation with the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics and ICECAP (Investigating the Cryospheric Evolution of the Central Antarctic Plate).

For its climate change studies, ICECAP currently uses an upgraded World War II era DC-3 with a suite of geophysical instruments to map the thickness of the ice sheet and measure the texture, composition, density and topography of rocks below the ice.

Beginning in summer 2017–18, Tiburon Junior’s big brother, Tiburon, will join the survey team.

 

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