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DAL, Pleiades Building Drones To Assess Effects Of Climate Change On The Ocean

Imagine an unmanned aerial vehicle taking off and landing on its own from a ship, sending back a range of data on the thickness of ice or the amount of CO2 in the air.

A Dalhousie research team is looking do exactly that by developing drones that are able to operate in extreme ocean environments.

Clifton Johnston, principal investigator of the project, says their first year has been focused on purchasing the necessary equipment, and learning how to adapt that equipment to travel up to 300 metres above the ocean in challenging weather.

Johnston says the importance of this research lies in the drone’s ability to go “somewhere that we generally can’t go; somewhere where we don’t go.”

He uses the example of a vessel plying ice-packed waters in the Arctic. An autonomous drone could fly ahead to determine the best path for the ship to move ahead to try and avoid the ice.

“You wouldn’t otherwise be able to make these measurements without that kind of technology,” said Johnston.

They’re partnered with Halifax-based aerial robotics firm Pleiades.

“This will eventually be transferred out into the industry and people will be able to buy it and use it,” said Johnston.

It will be at least a couple more years until the project reaches that stage.

The drones will first be tricked out with add-ons like air quality sensors to monitor atmospheric temperatures and a tracking system to determine its location.

They will also need to have software that will allow the drone to take off and land from the ship without crashing. The final touch will be the waterproof shell in case to protect it.

If the research is successful, Johnston says these drones could measure the thickness of ice, air quality, CO2 levels or other indicators of climate changes growth and damage.

Johnston says the drones’ findings could even lead to the drafting of new environmental policies.

The research is being carried out by engineers and computer scientists, and down the road Johnston says they hope to add oceanographers or atmospheric scientists to the team.

The group has received grants from the Marine Environmental Observation Prediction and Response (MEOPAR) network which has helped them get started on a motion analysis system.

Their next hurdle is learning the rules of the sky in order to operate their drones commercially.