Daniel Hazard

Nov 13th 2017

Science Takes Flight: Launching Wildlife Challenge Operation #PolarEye


It’s a hot summer day as the Wildlife Challenge team prepares for a test flight in a flying field near Northrop Grumman’s Rancho Bernardo, Calif., campus. “Take off in three … two … one,” calls out Wildlife Challenge founder and technical lead Charlie Welch to his visual spotter Victor Wang and team members Greg Kravit and Cris Paunescu. The six blades of the team’s hexacopter engage, and the vehicle is airborne. “Plane is up and flying its route,” he says, as “Ron” — as in Ron Burgundy, one of the team’s two vehicles — elevates and begins one of its first mapping mission of 2017.

Last year, Team Polar Eye from Melbourne, Fla. won the Wildlife Challenge and traveled to the Arctic to validate their autonomous flight technology. Their efforts laid the groundwork for this year’s program, Operation #PolarEye, and an upcoming research mission with San Diego Zoo Global (SDZG) scientists to monitor polar bears and their Arctic habitat. For 2017, Welch has assembled a new team that is laser focused on developing autonomous flight technology to revolutionize how SDZG carries out their conservation research.

“We are using a hexacopter platform because of its vertical takeoff and landing capability and robustness in harsh conditions,” said the Santa Rosa, Calif. native, as he watches Ron fly over the desert testing field in San Diego. “The platform consists of six rotors, a triple redundant navigation system, high-voltage battery pack and a gimbaled payload bay to hold our sensor payloads. We are also working to develop a ruggedized Arctic structure to protect our electronics and extend our battery range in the extreme cold.”

The team will be operating four sensors from their vehicle to provide a habitat– and wildlife­–data collection system at a fraction of the cost and size of past Arctic monitoring efforts. Payloads include high resolution and multispectral cameras, a laser altimeter and ice-penetrating radar. They will also livestream video to their ground station so they can operate a developmental autonomous recognition algorithm they hope will autonomously spot and monitor a polar bear and notify scientists on the ground.

In this rapid development process, the Wildlife Challenge team is tapping the company’s immense knowledge base through a series of technological challenges on SPARK, the company-wide innovation portal employees use to collaborate and propose new, innovative ideas. This effort is helping deliver creative ideas the Wildlife Challenge team can try out at their testing field in San Diego and ultimately during Operation #PolarEye in the Arctic in November 2017.

As the hexacopter completes its flight, Wang calls out, “Landing gear is down.” Welch responds, “Check,” as their vehicle lands safely on the dry San Diego County terrain. Later this month, Welch and his team will be replacing the hot terrain of southern California for the extreme cold and ice of the Arctic, and delivering a new tool in the battle to save polar bears and their threatened environment.