An arctic study currently underway by the University of Colorado at Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to aid researchers who are studying changes in Arctic ice, weather, and wildlife, including seals and polar bears.
The project, headed up by Elizabeth Weatherhead of the University of Colorado at Boulder, is the first to use unmanned aircraft. It uses the Scan Eagle aircraft produced by Boeing and began in May of 2009. The study consisted of two to eight hour flights that covered three to five mile areas. Over the duration of the study, the aircraft cataloged tens of thousands of images of ice and wildlife from altitudes of 300 feet to 1,000 feet.
Boulder Labs in Boulder, CO. developed an image recognition program that the project team used to process the captured images identifying seals in 27,000 pictures. From this point, researchers indicated seal types and ice types on which seals were found as well as calculated ice floes and their size and distribution.
The focus of the project is understanding the types of ice that seals need to survive so that other ice studies can be focused on particular types of ice. The current study focuses on four types of seals: bearded seals, ringed seals, spotted seals and ribbon seals. These seals are dependent on arctic ice for many aspects of their lives including breeding, sleeping and protection. Understanding the ice preferences of each seal breed allows researchers to study the particular types of ice and how they are holding up to climate change and by extension the long term effects that climate change will have on seal populations. The Arctic Ringed Seal is likely to be listed as a threatened species due to ice loss and snow melt in its habitat.
UAV flights are center-place to continued study of seals and ice, allowing researchers to collect more data enabling the most detailed study of seal populations and their Arctic habitat to date. These types of studies are perfect applications for UAVs highlighting the non-military potential of these aircraft.