Aurora Australis icebreaker from drone (Australian Antarctic Division)
Late in 2015 Australian UAV was given the opportunity to travel to Antarctica aboard the Aurora Australis with the Australian Antarctic Division, assisting with a resupply voyage to Casey Station.
The key objective of the project was to trial the ability of aerial drones to provide “eyes in the sky” to assist navigation of the supply ship through the thick sea ice, and as a secondary objective to provide an accurate aerial mapping of Casey Station.
To assist with navigation our requirements were to fly above the ship while providing a live vision feed to the bridge to enable the ship’s Master to see ‘leads’ in the sea ice. These cracks and weak points help expedite the ship’s progress and reduce the risk of it becoming trapped.
Drones have the potential to be quick to deploy (less than 10 minutes from initial instruction to delivery of video to the bridge), reduce costs and most importantly avoid risking lives in adverse conditions. Prior to departure we learned that the British Antarctic Survey were undertaking exactly the same trial on their icebreaker.
A range of key challenges were identified prior to the departure, key amongst these were the differences in how GPS and compasses work at such southerly lattitudes (over 100 degrees of compass declination at Casey Station), which had caused the drones of previous attempts by others to fly away, not an ideal situation on a moving ship.
Given the isolated location, extreme weather and other challenges, it was important that sufficient drones and backup equipment were brought along in order to guarantee a reliable and independent operation. To this end five different drones were taken, including a number of attrition aircraft which thankfully were not needed. Back-up UAVs were provided by Ground Effect Aviation, the company where James had undertaken his aviation training many years before. “We were very excited and proud to see James operating in such a challenging UAV environment”, says Matt Rayson, Chief Remote Pilot of Ground Effect Aviation. “James was our first graduate when we began the UAV training program, and his continued success provides a great example of what the right training and business planning can do”.
Tests Prior to Departure to Hobart
Our multi-rotor drones were tested in a range of situations prior to the departure from Hobart to ensure their best chance of success under these new and uncertain conditions.
In order to calibrate their onboard sensors, many drones rely on being completely stationary when first starting up. Obviously on a moving ship this is not an option. As an initial quick test the ability to operate from a moving vehicle was first trialed driving in a car as an easy confirmation that this was possible with the platforms we were looking to deploy.
The next obstacle was magnetic field interference, which initially prevented starting up in close proximity to metal structures, and would obviously be an issue when launching from the deck of a steel ship. This was identified early on as a problem to be resolved, and we reached out to the manufacturers in the hope of being provided a custom firmware to skip this calibration step upon startup, but they were unable to assist and so we went ahead trialling our own workarounds.
The impact of the cold on the battery endurance is well documented and it was assumed that there could be up to a 50% reduction in the battery life during the flight. The UAV’s battery bay was insulated to reduce this impact prior to flight in cold environments. This was later verified to have been successful, in fact we needed to reduce the insulation as they were getting a little hot.