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Northrop Grumman partners with San Diego Zoo for polar bear conservation project

May 9, 2018  - By

In late 2017, Northrop Grumman and San Diego Zoo Global planned and carried out a research mission to map Arctic sea ice formations to learn more about polar bear habitats — proving autonomous technology is making a name for itself as a key tool in conservation projects.

The project began as a competition between teams of Northrop Grumman employees who aimed to find a way to map Artic sea ice formations, and the winning team — Team Polar Eye from Melbourne, Florida — earned the privilege of using its technology to map the area.

“The project name is Wildlife Challenge,” said Charlie Welch, materials and process engineer at Northrop Grumman and technical lead of the Wildlife Challenge. “It’s a collaboration between San Diego Zoo Global and Northrop Grumman to help bring really high-level technology to the San Diego Zoo’s conservation efforts — specifically unmanned technology.”

Polar bears have to wait for the ice to freeze to hunt, and the zoo wanted to repeatedly map the same area in the Artic to learn more about the ice, including how it’s freezing, where a polar bear is on the ice and what the ice looks like, such as its thickness. The zoo then planned to use this data to predict how changes in the ice — and overall climate change — will affect the polar bears.

To carry out the project, the Northrop Grumman team developed a drone that could handle the freezing temperatures. The team then flew to Northern Canada to gather the ice data.

“We had to take the drone out to the middle of nowhere, basically, and be confident that this could work and collect critical data on a really key, iconic species,” Welch said. “Half the engineering was designing the logistics of getting our team out there, getting every spare part we could think of and making sure that we could survive out there, along with the system.”

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During the 10-day mission, the team used its modified DJI M600 hexacopter drone to capture the data, as well as ground equipment to process the data and ensure the drone was operating correctly. According to the company, the hexacopter platform consisted of six rotors, a triple-redundant navigation system, high-voltage battery packs and a custom payload bay to hold a range of integrated sensors. It was also equipped with a ruggedized thermal shell, designed to withstand temperatures as low as minus-20 degrees Fahrenheit.

“We had to make a few adjustments in the field, as we kind of anticipated,” Welch said. “So we designed the drone to be reconfigurable really easily.”

The Northrop Grumman team used its modified DJI M600 hexacopter drone to capture the ice data. Photo by Allison Barwacz

The team conducted several successful sea ice mapping missions and collected an array of habitat data, including 3D sea ice maps and multispectral data, both collected at sub-centimeter resolution, the company said. Northrop Grumman sent the data to zoo scientists, who are still closely working with the company. Northrop Grumman also donated its hexacopter drone to the zoo so that it be used for other conservation projects.

“We’re keeping in collaboration [with the zoo] to try and figure out what they want to do next from a scientific perspective, and how the data we collected is working out for what their goals were,” Welch said. “We see these innovative projects as a good way to engage our employees and give them the ability to work on projects that are very science-based. We also want to make a positive impact toward STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and be able to show students how engineering and science fields can be applied in a variety of ways.”

About the Author: Allison Kral

Allison Kral is the former digital media manager for North Coast Media (NCM). She completed her undergraduate degree at Ohio University where she received a Bachelor of Science in magazine journalism from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. She works across a number of digital platforms, which include creating e-newsletters, writing articles and posting across social media sites. She also creates content for NCM's Pit & Quarry magazine, Portable Plants magazine and Geospatial Solutions. Her understanding of the ever-changing digital media world allows her to quickly grasp what a target audience desires and create content that is appealing and relevant for any client across any platform.