A group of scientists recently flew up to the Arctic to test a new technology that they think might make measuring the ice pack — and tracking the polar bears that occupy it — easier and faster.

The researchers were experimenting with a new kind of autonomous flight technology, which they hoped would give them more localized and immediate information about the region. The group, which included engineers from Northrop Grumman Corp. and scientists from San Diego Zoo Global, say the information could become a critical component of polar bear conservation.

"Technology is really driving ecological and conservation research, and opening up new and exciting windows into the behavior of animals," said James Sheppard, a senior researcher with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. "It shows us characteristics of the habitats they're occupying without disturbing them."

The aircraft they were testing at Churchill, Manitoba, is all-electric and equipped with multiple optical sensors. It's built to be able to withstand the harsh Arctic landscape. According to Charlie Welch, advanced research and development engineer with Northrop Grumman, the scientists sent out the craft to visually map the sea ice on a day-to-day basis, as well as experiment with a sensor that uses lasers to create a 3-D profile of the landscape.

"It would enable us to accurately measure the thickness and physical characteristics of the ice," he said.

When it comes to measuring ice thickness and tracking polar bear movement, scientists currently depend on satellite imagery and data.

However, there's one problem with this, according to Megan Owen, associate director with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research: with a resolution of about 50 square kilometers, the data aren't granular enough to get an in-depth understanding of the region.

"The only reason we know the impacts of climate change on the Arctic Sea is because satellite technology, for the past 40 years, has allowed us to document the declines in sea ice," she said.

Rapid deployment in a fast-changing landscape

Members of the Arctic expedition testing out a new autonomous flight technology, which could help provide faster and more accurate data from the region. Photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems.

Since the data are from fairly high up, Owen and her team have sometimes noticed discrepancies when comparing them with location data collected from collars they've put on a few polar bears in the region. This led them to the realization that they need a more localized understanding of what's happening to the sea ice, particularly because it's crucial for the survival of the species.

"2016 has just broken another record for the lowest extent of sea ice in November, and polar bears are absolutely dependent on the sea ice. The longer it takes for the ice to grow back, the more energy-stressed the polar bears are, and it's more of a challenge surviving the next season," explained Owen.

Their new aircraft technology could help fix this gap. For starters, explained Welch, it allows for rapid deployment — they can have it set up every day to take measurements, and it can capture highly detailed, accurate landscape data.

"Instead of waiting weeks and weeks for satellite images, we can go out there and deploy this system when we need to, collect the information, and immediately process it and feed it into ecological models. This is a key point here, because the ice is changing so rapidly," he said.

Deploying the technology up in the Arctic was a challenge, though.

"It's partly fun, partly you won't know until you get up there," said Welch. "This was a first step, having our engineers put their boots on the ground to test out the new systems in one of the harshest environments in the world, to evaluate how we can develop the system that researchers need from a scientific data perspective."

From a testing point of view, the team thought the trip was pretty successful. It spent two days successfully testing the aircraft and was able to put the system in the air, conduct a system-level check and perform what Welch called a "base-level mapping mission of the habitat."

Now that initial testing has been completed, the team is still in the process of figuring out the path for the next year. While it doesn't have exact plans sketched out yet, said Daniel Hazard, with the Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems public relations team, it is keen on taking the partnership with the San Diego Zoo forward.

"We see it as a unique partnership. We've had a long focus on science and human discovery, and San Diego Zoo is a global leader in conservation. We feel good about this year and are trying to figure out what the future looks like," he said.

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.