In a pioneering effort, researchers have developed a radar system using drones to analyze the subsurface layers of ice caps, which may provide revolutionary insights into climate change. The project, named Peregrine, commenced in 2020, leveraging advances in fixed-wing UAVs and smaller electronic components.
Traditional systems were ill-suited for this purpose. To develop a light and small radar system that could be mounted on an affordable UAV, the team opted for software-defined radio (SDR) technology. This innovation moved much of the radar system's complexity from hardware to software, with the entire radar system fitting onto a few compact circuit boards.
The team paired the SDR with a Raspberry Pi computer, which not only controlled the SDR but also connected to a temperature sensor network, ensuring operational stability. This drone-ready system weighed just under a kilogram. One design challenge was creating antennas suitable for the drone's size without compromising their ability to detect through ice.
While the initial steps seemed promising, practical tests revealed unexpected issues. When field-tested near their lab, the drone's GPS failed to function due to interference from the system's USB 3.0 interface. This problem was later solved by enclosing the Raspberry Pi and the SDR in a specially designed shielded box.
The real-world application of this technology took place six months later on Iceland’s Vatnajökull ice cap. There, despite some technical hitches, the drone was successfully used to detect layers of volcanic material known as tephra below the surface.
Further tests in Norway allowed the team to image the base of a glacier up to 150 meters below the surface. This success underpins the belief that the system will perform effectively in challenging conditions like those in Antarctica and Greenland.
Though the current Peregrine system is designed for portability and affordability, the long-term vision involves a larger UAV with a range of about 800 km, which could be permanently stationed at Antarctic research stations. Such drones could potentially cover almost every part of coastal Antarctica. Collaborations between Stanford University, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Lane Community College are underway to bring this larger version to life. Within three years, they aim to have these drones studying ice sheets in both Antarctica and Greenland.
The introduction of such UAVs could transform climate change research. They would enable scientists to swiftly collect data, monitor dynamic areas regularly, and rapidly respond to sudden changes, like ice shelf collapses. The detailed radar data collected by these drones would be invaluable for predicting sea-level rises and could significantly influence global climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies.