Daniel Hazard

Apr 24th 2018

Operation #PolarEye: Mission Success


When Operation #PolarEye team members Greg Kravit, Cris Paunescu, Victor Wang and Charlie Welch started the joint mission with San Diego Zoo Global (SDZG) to map Arctic sea ice, they had only one goal in mind: get to Hudson Bay by November to test and deliver a new autonomous system in the fight to conserve polar bears and their habitat.

After months of preparation, countless hours in the San Diego FabLab (their home base) and more than 30 test flights, team members traveled to Canada in November 2017 to join SDZG scientists in Churchill, Manitoba, often called the Polar Bear Capital of the World. This was the second year of a collaboration that not only allowed for better understanding how new technology can be used for conservation but also provided Northrop Grumman engineers with an opportunity to rapidly prototype, test and deploy a system they developed into the field.

Operation #PolarEye team members, Tony Long, Victor Wang, and Charlie Welch, make adjustments to their hexacopter before heading out to the sea ice.

During the 10-day mission, the team used a commercial off-the-shelf hexacopter fitted with a custom sensor pod designed to provide a more detailed, finer-scale view of sea ice habitat than scientists could previously acquire. Operating out of a small research cabin 25 miles north of Churchill on the edge of Hudson Bay, team members went to extreme measures to protect themselves and their equipment from stiff winds and air temperatures as low as minus-20 degrees Fahrenheit. While flying missions more than a mile out on the sea ice, team members wore head-to-toe Arctic gear and outfitted their hexacopter with a ruggedized thermal shell printed at Aerospace Systems’ Space Park (Redondo Beach, Calif.) site.

“Our team led this effort with our background knowledge in autonomous systems, and a deep sense of passion and dedication to deliver a cutting-edge system for San Diego Zoo Global’s Arctic Mission. To be able to operate an advanced system like this in extreme Arctic conditions and collect data was a huge success for both our UAS and our San Diego Zoo Global-Northrop Grumman team,” said Welch, Operation #PolarEye technical lead.

Equipped with four integrated sensors operating simultaneously, the hexacopter flew 11 sea ice mapping missions and collected an array of habitat data, including 3-D sea ice maps and multispectral data, both collected at sub-centimeter resolution. The team also tested the ability of its custom sensor suite to detect tracks and signs left behind by polar bears as they migrate from land to sea ice.

“This mission demonstrated what is possible when advanced technology is integrated into conservation research for threatened species like the polar bear,” said Dr. Nicholas Pilfold, scientist for SDZG. “To be able to analyze polar bear habitat in three dimensions will allow us to answer pertinent questions that have previously eluded scientists.”

Kravit, Paunescu, Wang and Welch spent Thanksgiving away from their families living in extremely close quarters in the middle of an often unforgiving environment. Due to their commitment to mission success, Northrop Grumman was able to provide SDZG with a new tool for conservation efforts researchers hope to use again in the Arctic and other habitats where technology may hold the key to future conservation breakthroughs.

Click here to learn more about Operation #PolarEye and the tech making a difference in our environment.