30 miles north of the Arctic Circle, a newbie drone pilot learns what it takes to operate a UAV in a remote research setting.
A frozen lake. Knee-deep snow. Nighttime temperatures exceeding -20 deg. Celsius. Studying the impact of climate change on Arctic herbivores is difficult work and probably the last place you’d expect to fly a drone.
However, my story begins a few months before that. This spring, a group of students from Pennsylvania State University worked together to build an autonomous FX-61 Phantom to be used in a number of research applications. Imagine three kids who’ve never flown anything larger than a paper airplane sitting up late at night trying to decide how best to install a GPS and where to add the arming button. Should we paint it? Should we christen it?
Testing our Resolve
Our first flight attempt did not go as planned. Our flying wing (read flying rock) dropped to the ground shortly after take-off and ended with a broken control horn and motor mount; thankfully both fixable with hobby glue. My field season journal entries… say it all.
April 27 – Flight Trial 1:
“The flight lasted less than 5 seconds … Very disappointed.”
May 3 – Flight Trial 2:
“Had another epic failure. Feeling discouraged.”
Success at Last
After reassembling the UAV and a making few minor tweaks to the mission plan, the stars finally aligned and our little campsite in the Arctic saw its first successful drone flight. The timing could not have been better. My advisor had arrived at the field site the day before and the recent transition from winter to spring was the perfect time for photogrammetric measurements of the surrounding areas.
May 19 – First Successful Flight:
“The caribou have arrived, the lake ice is beginning to recede, the drone is in the air, and spring is just around the corner.”