(Bloomberg) — Roberta Pirazzini set out an Arctic expedition to do something no one had ever tried before: fly a drone near the North Pole.
Sensors on the drone would assess sunlight reflected from the ice. This measurement, known as surface albedo, is key to understanding how much solar radiation is absorbed by the Earth and how much is reflected back into the atmosphere. It’s one of the scientific puzzles that can help predict how fast sea ice will melt.
But flying a drone over the planet’s northernmost reaches is no simple feat. Pirazzini and a colleague, Henna-Reetta Hannula, spent months learning to fly at the Finnish Meteorological Institute, where both are on staff as scientists. Technicians designed and built a sophisticated navigation system capable of handling extreme weather.
The scientists and their drones then joined the largest Arctic expedition in history aboard the Polarstern, an icebreaker carrying dozens of researchers on a year-long mission. The pair had also brought along a smaller practice drone that could fly inside their tiny cabin, the only chance they’d have to keep their skills sharp in the weeks of sailing before finally stepping onto the ice.
Right away, Pirazzini ran into the same problems that have beset Arctic explorers for two centuries: treacherous navigation conditions and technology that buckles in the deep cold.
Drones and helicopters have trouble near the North Pole because global positioning satellites suffer small uncertainties at extreme northern latitudes. This creates mounting confusion for navigation the closer a pilot gets to the North Pole, and Pirazzini’s drones would be operating closer than any before.
The navigation nightmare has claimed another drone earlier in the expedition. The drone took off from the ship, went in a completely uncontrolled direction and crashed. Pirazzini was terrified her albedo-measuring drone would fall victim next, and her fears were confirmed as soon as she stepped onto the ice. The navigation system on the main drone wasn’t working, meaning she and Hannula would need to manually calculate distances, direction, altitude and wind speed.
“The freezing conditions were our main enemy, not only for the ice in the blade” of the drone’s rotors, “but in our fingers,” Pirazzini says, her voice cracking over a satellite phone during the Polarstern’s return voyage earlier this month. “You need very delicate, small motions to operate the drone,” she says. “When your hand is freezing you lose sensitivity, your fingers can’t control the features anymore.”
Fog would turn into ice around the drone’s blades. Wind gusts stronger than eight meters per hour would ground the drone. Still, the two scientists managed to conduct 18 flights over three weeks. Albedo measurements captured by Pirazzini, 49, and Hannula, 33, will now be analyzed as part of multinational effort to understand how warming temperatures are affecting the Arctic—a scientific race against climate change itself.
Earth’s northern icecap