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New modifiable drone can help researchers scan the changing Antarctic ice shelf

The Tiburon is a UAV made specifically for science

Inuitive Machines

Measuring how the polar ice caps change over time is crucial to understanding the effects of our warming climate — but doing so is no easy task. The process often involves flying radar-outfitted planes through the Arctic and Antarctic to scan the regions' glaciers up close. The weather in these regions is often unpredictable, so piloting planes through the poles can be stressful and risky.

That's why a group of aerospace engineers have created a drone that's better suited to the task. It's called the Tiburon, and it's made by the Houston-based company Intuitive Machines. The Tiburon is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) weighing up to 55 pounds that can carry radar instruments to scan the caps for researchers, relieving pilots from the dangerous feat.

The drone can be used for more than just scanning polar caps

It's not the first drone to aid with research in Earth's arctic areas; unmanned vehicles have been flying in these frigid regions for years. But what sets the Tiburon apart is its versatility, according to its manufacturers. The drone can be used for more than just scanning polar caps; its instruments can be swapped to conduct research in different regions and for different purposes. It can fly over crops to look for diseased plant life, for instance, or to inspect oil and gas lines to make sure there are no trees growing over an important pipe. "Each one of those different scenarios requires a completely different sensor package," said Kevin Bass, the lead for mechatronics at the company. "Our airframe has the ability to change out sensor packages."

One of those sensor packages includes radar and lidar instruments that can provide detailed information about the changing state of the polar ice caps. Intuitive Machines has already teamed up with the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics to use the Tiburon to help with the study of climate change's effects in the Antarctic. UTIG is continuously checking the thickness of the ice sheet near the pole, as well as studying the topography of the ground beneath the ice.

UTIG's modified DC-3 turbo plane. (NASA/UTIG)

Typically, UTIG has used a radar-outfitted Douglas DC-3 propeller plane to study the Antarctic ice sheet in depth, which costs $3,000 an hour to fly. It's cheaper to use the Tiburon for the same task, according to Joe Bibby, director of art and marketing at Intuitive Machines, though the company isn't sharing exact prices just yet. Bibby says the costs will be somewhere between 30 to 40 percent less than the DC-3. Additionally, the drone can perform more scans over a shorter period of time than the plane, and UTIG could potentially perform multiple scans at once with numerous aircraft working in sync, increasing the area of coverage. But perhaps the Tiburon's biggest benefit is keeping pilots out of terrible weather in the Antarctic.

"It could be clear skies one moment, and blizzard conditions the next."

"It could be clear skies one moment, and blizzard conditions the next. It’s really taxing," said Bass. "[There have been] a lot of injuries and even some deaths from pilots getting caught in blizzard-like conditions."

The Tiburon's origins are somewhat unique, as the vehicle is the brainchild of former NASA scientists. Intuitive Machines was started in 2013 by Steve Altemus, the former deputy director of NASA's Johnson Space Center; he recruited a number of other ex-NASA employees and scientists to come up with engineering solutions in the realms of space and air travel. Recently the company used their spaceflight expertise to develop a vehicle that could carry samples from the International Space Station to Earth in less than 24 hours. Think same-day delivery, but from space.

Now, with the Tiburon, Intuitive Machines wants something that can stay in the air for extended periods of time and perform a range of different tasks for research purposes. "We're steering away from any kind of weaponized version, but we are interested in surveillance," said Bibby. "We're really focused on agriculture, oil and gas, and other science applications." The Tiburon’s creators also want the drone to surpass the world record for the longest continuous air time for a small unmanned vehicle, which is currently set at 54 hours and 27 minutes. "We’re looking to take that world record and beat 55 hours of time in the air," said Bass. Ultimately, the goal is to get to 60 hours.

The Tiburon still has a way to go before it can fully aid pilots in the Antarctic. Its missions have been short, as the drone's fuel tank can't hold enough yet to keep the UAV in the air for more than 55 hours. And the Tiburon still has to be piloted remotely as the engineers at Intuitive Machines improve the drone's autonomous flight software.

Although Tiburon may not be the first research drone of its kind — the University of Colorado has used similar-sized UAVs to measure temperatures around the Antarctic ice shelf — it highlights the expanding market for UAV capabilities. "This is a fascinating example of harsh and forbidding environments where you're able to use unmanned technology to survey wide swaths of area," said Adam Lisberg, the communications director for drone manufacturer DJI. "You can do it with the fraction of the cost, effort, and risk in putting occupied human aircraft in that type of environment. It's one of a million different uses you’re going to see as the technology matures."

Check out photos of the Tiburon in action in the Antarctic below: