Winter-Proof Drone is Here

When it comes to the stunningly beautifully and frigid open and wide spaces of the Arctic, drone science is yet to make a mark on them. Drones can perhaps be used to count sea-lion populations, ice-cover mapping, and even carrying out search and rescue operations along the Alaska’s coast.

However, small sized drones have some issues related to them. Limited flight duration and low payload capacity are some of the restrictions associated with small aircrafts. This was exactly the issue confronted by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), a US Federal research agency, which was looking for a device that could transport sophisticated paraphernalia for gauging solar irradiance, wind speed in three dimensions and analyze air particulates. It was in need of a state of the art aircraft that could assist the scientists and researchers comprehend the various natural phenomenon that were taking place in an environment that going through a colossal change process. Having said that, a manned aircraft was neither too feasible with regard to financial aspects nor in associated with safety aspects. Since there was no available device that could serve this complex purpose, so the agency decided to build their own drone known as the ArcticShark.

Dr. Schmidt, Associate Director at PNNL, says that two specifications were formulated with the higher one proposing an aircraft with the capacity of carrying a payload of 70 pounds and a flight duration of a whopping eight to ten hours. But the odds were stacked against them, he says, owing to financial constraints.

So, finally, the agency got into contact with the Navmar Applied Sciences Corporation for their military-grade surveillance drone, TigerShark. In addition to boasting a number of cutting-edge features, longer flight duration and higher payload capacity were the two features that caught the eye of the agency. The aircraft was originally developed in 2005, but the much heralded TigerShark series boasts a coveted track record of consisting of almost 200 drones that have a combined flight duration of 100,000 flight hours.

Navmar came up with the weather-resistant ArcticShark after carrying out certain modifications. This upgraded device had a 22-feet wingspan, could fly at an optimum speed of 75 mph, attain an elevation of 15,000 feet and had the payload capacity of 625 pounds. To put the cherry on the cake, the ArcticShark also provides a huge four kilowatts of power to its scientific onboard weather equipment. This was all carried out at a price that was way lower than that expected at the outset.

Developing a drone that is larger in size and more efficient in operations is one aspect of the task. Developing a device that could withstand the Arctic, where temperatures could be as low as -50 degrees Celsius, was a huge ask. As ice would build up on the wings, it could deteriorate aerodynamics and freeze control surfaces in position. At the poles, pogonip, an extreme form of ice fog could be more of a hassle. Pogonip is a native American terminology that means white death. The fog tends to pile up on any surface it comes into contact with and results rapid and threatening cover of ice.

Generally, the larger airline companies would be irked by these issues. It was even a more Herculean task for such a compact sized drones, adorned with intricate weather instruments to soar through clouds. Even the Air Force’s RG-4 Global Hawks are not equipped with de-icing features and are not able to fly in frigid weather conditions. So, if a drone is already too small, every inch of it is of great significance. Therefore, the size and weight of de-icing gear could result in much more reduction of the payload capacity of a small device.

As far as the ArcticShark is concerned, engineers and researchers at Navmar are in the middle of building a special electric-powered veneer, similar to a finer version of heaters fitted in the car’s windscreen. Using carbon nanotubes, this cover will transfer heat from electric components to the wing surfaces. The painted coating will not affect aerodynamics adversely and will also conserve power by producing heat for only those areas influenced by the buildup of ice.

The ArcticShark is fitted with a 60 horsepower, fuel-injected engine which means that the treat of icing is nullified and all the flight components are solidified to survive temperatures of -20 degrees C or -4 Fahrenheit. A certain low-temperature lubricant is used in servomotors. EPDM weather seal gasketing has been employed to all access hatches, ports and panels to prevent accumulation of moisture and ice content.

In addition to this amazing innovation of Arctic engineering, the ArcticShark’s ground station is another wonder of the modern technology. The transport module serves the dual purpose of operations center and consists of several layers of insulation and wall/floor heating. All this is comfortable enough for a three-person crew at the ground.

The control room is quite spacious and the operators believe that the operating room on wheels, appears like a movie theatre with the lights switched off. What’s more, once a task has been accomplished, the ArcticShark can be folded up, stored inside the control room and transported to the next destination.

To top it all up, the advanced satellites communications system is another marvel of its own. The ice-resistant drone is able to transport state-of-the-art scientific instruments to a distance of several hundred kilometers at an interval of 10 hours. This is exactly what PNNL had been looking for.

Tom Rickey, a representative of PNNL, says that PNNL is planning to make the novel device available to any researcher who requires this novel device. He claims that the aircraft will provide access to intricate meteorological equipment to scientists from all over the world and will furnish them with data that could spur ways forward for new questions.

Flight trials of ArcticShark have been completed while the maiden research flights of the drone will be conducted in the coming year. Navmar are also in contact with other clients who might show interest in the innovative aircraft.

The ice-resistant unmanned aircrafts appear to be a thing of the future because of the evolving transportation paths owing to climate changes and the super power’s interest in the polar regions due to their hitherto unearthed oil and gas reserves and their strategic geographic significance.

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