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Autonomous 10-metre drone unveiled by British Antarctic Survey as it plans inaugural flights





An autonomous drone that can carry a range of science sensors was unveiled this week by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) ahead of its inaugural flight in the new year, writes editor Paul Brackley.

Designed for extreme environments like Antarctica, the Windracers ULTRA UAV (uncrewed aerial vehicle) will be used initially for tasks such as surveying protected environmentally-sensitive areas and assessing glaciological structures, helping gather important data in areas such as climate change.

Carl Robinson and Dr Dominic Hodgson at BAS with the drone. Picture: Keith Heppell
Carl Robinson and Dr Dominic Hodgson at BAS with the drone. Picture: Keith Heppell

The fully autonomous, twin-engine, 10-metre fixed-winged aircraft can carry 100kg of cargo or sensors for up to 1,000km.

It needs minimal involvement from a ground operator to take off, fly and land safely, thanks to an autopilot system called Masterless, developed and patented by Distributed Avionics. It can even continue to fly if one of the engines or components is damaged or fails.

Its use in the Antarctic field season, from January to March 2024, is part of Cambridge-based BAS’s plan to automate its science platforms and reach net zero carbon emissions by 2040.

Windracers' ULTRA UAV flying in Llanbedr, Wales. Picture: Windracers and British Antarctic Survey
Windracers' ULTRA UAV flying in Llanbedr, Wales. Picture: Windracers and British Antarctic Survey

BAS interim science director Dr Dominic Hodgson said: “At BAS, we are changing our approach to science by increasing the use of autonomous platforms, such as UAVs and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), to collect data.

“By deploying unpiloted platforms, such as the Windracers ULTRA, BAS has the potential to scale up airborne science and accelerate research, given the dramatic increases in flight time and geographic coverage that these enable.

“UAV drones will allow us to gather new and a broader range of science data in an effective, lower-carbon and lower cost manner than traditional crewed aviation – with the added benefit of greater levels of safety.”

Using artificial intelligence-driven SWARM technology, multiple autonomous drones can also be organised into a single unified system, which could help collect science data across a wider area.

Carl Robinson, who looks after the drones at BAS. Picture: Keith Heppell
Carl Robinson, who looks after the drones at BAS. Picture: Keith Heppell

Its use is being funded by Innovate UK’s Future Flight 3 Challenge as part of a pilot programme called ‘Protecting environments with uncrewed aerial vehicle swarms’, which aims to show how the advanced drone technology can be used to gather environmental data in Antarctica. Its unveiling comes ahead of the UK’s two-day AI safety summit at Bletchley Park, at which the government will explore the benefits and risks of AI and automation.

Carl Robinson, who manages BAS’s use of UAVs, said: “The Windracers ULTRA is an ideal platform for integrating science sensors on to, because it has a large floor area, volume and 200W of power available for science instruments, which means a wide range of science sensor payloads can be flown.

“The ULTRA’s range and speed, and systems redundancy are well suited to the polar environment and make for an attractive science platform. The removable floor can be quickly replaced with floors dedicated for various science sensors, allowing for a quick change between science applications. Using the easily configurable mission plans, our scientists can quickly plan flights to collect science data in areas of interest, allowing flexibility to collect their science data.”

In the upcoming field season, the Windracers ULTRA will:
- survey protected environmentally sensitive areas and assess the marine food chain – namely krill – using cameras;
- investigate tectonic structures with magnetic and gravity sensors;
- assess glaciological structures using airborne radar; and
- test an atmospheric turbulence probe for studies of boundary layer processes coupling ocean and atmosphere.

Cargo drone operator Windracers has the first BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) autonomous drone flight in the UK to its name.

Stephen Wright, the company’s co-founder and chairman of Windracers, said: “Our autonomous aircraft is able to collect a broad range of critical science data in places that are difficult and dangerous to reach.

With the drone at BAS are Dr Tom Jordan, Carl Robinson, Dr Dominic Hodgson, Rebecca Toomey, Tom Reed and Stephen Wright. Picture: Keith Heppell
With the drone at BAS are Dr Tom Jordan, Carl Robinson, Dr Dominic Hodgson, Rebecca Toomey, Tom Reed and Stephen Wright. Picture: Keith Heppell

“This is key for the future of research in high interest areas including climate change.

“We are proud to be working with British Antarctic Survey and are keen to support scientific research wherever possible with our high endurance and high payload platform.

“Future UAV science missions could involve air-dropping marine sensors, investigating the flow of water beneath ice shelves, or investigating areas inaccessible with traditional platforms in Antarctica and beyond.”



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