Small Drone Probes Antarctic Ice With Radar

Researchers obtain radar profiles of glacial ice using a small unmanned aircraft

2 min read
37-kilogram unmanned aerial vehicle probes Antarctic glacial ice with radar
37-kilogram unmanned aerial vehicle probes Antarctic glacial ice with radar
Shawn Keshmiri

2014 promises to be the year small drones will start showing off what they can do—at least if the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration comes through with regulations that allow them to take to the air. But there’s one first for a diminutive robotic aircraft we can already report: making radar soundings of polar ice.

A group of researchers from the Center for the Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets at the University of Kansas is right now at the sub-glacial Lake Whillans field camp on the Whillans Ice Stream in Antarctica. The team is testing a system they’ve devised that includes a 100-watt ice-penetrating radar carried aboard a small unmanned aerial vehicle.

Probing glacial ice with radar is nothing new. That’s long been done both by towing radar equipment across the ice and by flying it over the ice on airplanes. Synthetic-aperture approaches have even been used. But this is the first time anyone has obtained radar soundings of ice using a small drone.

The aircraft these researchers chose is one of their own design and has a rather peculiar appearance—at least for such an application. You might ask: Why does this pilotless UAV have a cockpit? That's because it was derived from earlier work the group did using an ordinary radio-control model that could be bought off the shelf: a 1/3-scale Yak 54. (The Yak 54, popular in modeling circles, is based on a 1990s-era aerobatic aircraft produced by the Moscow-based Yakolev Aircraft Corporation.)

The radar soundings were done using a somewhat larger airframe, but one that still very much resembles a “Yak,” as it is known to RC modelers. The plane, which these researchers refer to as the GX1, weighs 37 kilograms in all, including 2 kilograms of radar gear, which can be operated on two bands: 14 and 35 MHz.

The plane takes off and lands under the control of what some UAV operators refer to as an “external pilot,” meaning someone who is on the ground looking up at the plane rather than flying it while looking at a video feed being transmitted from the air. Once it’s airborne, though, the pilot can put the plane into a largely autonomous mode in which the plane’s autopilot takes over and flies to whatever waypoints are commanded. The little aircraft has a range of more than 200 kilometers, running on just a few liters of fuel.

The University of Kansas researchers plan to miniaturize their radar gear still further and build a small fleet of drone aircraft that can probe the depths of fast-flowing glaciers with closely spaced radar measurements taken from the air.

Images, Plane photo: Shawn Keshmiri; Echogram: Carl Leuschen

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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