Each year, the US military set outs on a resupply mission to McMurdo Station, the National Science Foundation's Antarctic research center. With swathes of sea ice standing in its way, the Polar Star icebreaker first plows channels for other ships loaded with food, fuel and other supplies to pass through. But this year it has received a helping hand, by way of an unmanned drone that flies out ahead of the ship to scout the safest path forward.
In an effort to reduce the human risk of the annual endeavor, which is named Operation Deep Freeze, the team contracted drone company AeroVironment to supply it with an aerial perspective of the Ross Sea en route to the station. The weapon of choice, a Puma AE unmanned aircraft, is something we have seen used in a number of applications before, including oil spill monitoring, wildlife surveillance and surveying roads and pipelines.
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Weighing 13.5 lb (6.12 kg), with a range of 15 km (9.3 mi) and a 210-minute flight time, the hand-launched Puma can take off from the Polar Star without the need for modifications to the ship. It streams live color and infrared video along with laser illumination back to the crew to help them navigate the perilous waters and minimize the risk to human life, while also avoiding the expense of deploying helicopters to do the job.
Though the waterproof Puma drone can land on the ground and be retrieved from the water, the AeroVironment team is using the opportunity to test out a new recovery system that involves capturing the drone in a net on its return to the vessel.
"Operation Deep Freeze is one of the US military's most complex peacetime missions due to the harsh Antarctic environment," says Kirk Flittie, AeroVironment vice president. "AeroVironment's Puma AE is delivering vital advanced scouting intelligence to help the Coast Guard's Polar Star conduct ice-breaking operations in the treacherous waters of the Ross Sea more safely and efficiently without putting pilots and costly helicopters at risk."
The Operation Deep Freeze team set off from Tasmania on December 30, 2015 and arrived at McMurdo Station on January 18, 2016.