Solar-powered drone monitors glacier

Researchers at ETH Zurich have developed a solar-powered drone. The AtlantikSolar has now been successfully used in a field test in the Arctic, where it provided unique data on the calving of a glacier.

The Autonomous Systems Laboratory (ASL) at the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich has developed a solar-powered drone called AtlantikSolar, which should, in theory, be capable of flying for several days.

Together with glaciologists from ETH Zurich, the autonomous systems scientists headed far north to test AtlantikSolar in Qaanaaq, northwest Greenland. According to an article in the ETH Zukunftsblog, continuous daylight conditions in the Arctic summer provide the ideal conditions for the collaborative Sun2Ice projected.

The article’s authors, Guillaume Jouvet from the Laboratory of Hydraulics, Hydrology and Glaciology (VAW) and Thomas Stastny from the ASL, describe how the path to success was quite rocky at first. For instance, the landing spot identified last year was blown away by strong winds in the winter. Then, after almost one week of manual work to improvise a safe landing strip, fog grounded AtlantikSolar for another several days.

The first 24-hour test flight above Qaanaq had to be interrupted 13 hours into the mission as a result of fog. But despite 6 hours of cloudy and windy conditions throughout the flight, the batteries remained more than 60 per cent of their capacity, indicating the drone is capable of over 20 hours of flight “even with sustained poor conditions”.

Some two weeks later, AtlantikSolar flew 5 hours and 230 kilometres to the Bowdoin Glacier and back, intact and nearly fully charged despite encountering the strongest winds it has ever flown in.

The solar-powered drone brought back with it exciting pictures of a large crack at the front of the glacier, which collapsed only a few days later. This has provided the glaciologists with a unique set of data on the calving of a glacier – “a complex and still not fully understood mechanism” that plays a major role in sea level rise.


Image credit: Sun2Ice / ETH Zurich

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