ODENSE, Denmark — Concerns about global climate change, developing technologies, and the international race to access Arctic resources have made Greenland the new frontier for unmanned aerial systems or UAS research.
At the UAS Test Center Denmark earlier this year, Integra Aerial Services delivered its Penguin B drone to the Villum Research Station (VRS), which is based in Northern Greenland. The newly built station is 1,250 km (776.6 miles) from the nearest city and was funded by a donation of 70.5 million DKK ($11.02 million U.S.) from the Villum Foundation.
By the year 2100, scientists predict that the local temperature at VRS will be 9 to 10 degrees Celsius (16 to 18 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than today, so the location is perfect for observing dramatic changes — using the new drones.
“I usually say that Greenland in many ways is a sentinel for climate change. If the changes are seen in Greenland, they are global,” said Henrik Skov, head of the science station and a professor at the Arctic Research Center and the Department of Environmental Science at Aarhus University in Denmark.
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- The global market for aerial drones is increasing, with sales of 140,000 units in 2014 growing to an expected 1.6 million in 2020.
- Hostile environments or those without much telecommunications infrastructure are ideal for UAS research. Scientists can collect much more data in the Arctic using unmanned systems, and commercial attention is growing for other applications.
- Integra Aerial Services operates the Penguin B, a customized drone, to gather big data for VRS’s climate studies in North Greenland.
Drone business takes off in Greenland
After years of cooperation, the first large drone is now ready to take off in Greenland.
“We have entered this business area through research. It is the most promising business area which I have been part of,” said Michael Niels Thorsen, director of Integra Aerial Services, which he co-founded in 2014. “We have achieved much in Europe, and we have several flights for Airbus with various European programs.”
Thorsen has been in the aviation business since 1987 and is an adviser to the European Commission.
“The future of drones might bring missions of sovereignty enforcement, delivery of medicine for isolated settlements, or search and rescue,” he said.
Climate concerns prompt joint UAS research
According to many scientists, the retreat of inland and sea ice at the North Pole is happening so fast that various computer models cannot reproduce them. About 40% of the sea ice has reportedly melted, and the effects on the planet’s climate and oceans are not yet well understood.
The ultramodern VRS is owned by the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources and works closely with Aarhus University. Integra is operating the Penguin B to enable the VRS to study climate change in the High Arctic.
Another partner for the UAS research is Denmark’s National Space Institute, or DTU Space, at the Danish Technological Institute. Official support has come from the Danish parliament and Greenland’s government.
Greenland requires customized drones
Any Arctic drones must be specially designed to cope with the long distance between outposts and the extreme weather. The temperature can reach -40 Celsius (-40 Fahrenheit).
UAS research can measure the thickness of ice or find people (using an infrared camera) for safety and rescue operations.
The first of the larger drones for Northern Greenland is the Penguin B, which has a wingspan of 3.3 m (10.8 ft.), a weight of less than 25 kg (55.1 lb.), and a payload of 10 kilos (22 lb.). It can fly for eight hours with 4.5 liters (1.18 gallons) of gasoline.
But above all, the drone must be able to gather data. The Penguin B includes lidar cameras and uses the Iridium satellite network, which is necessary for reliable communications so far north.
While the Penguin B needs a runway, the Penguin C drone uses a catapult for takeoff and lands with a parachute. The Greenland Institute of Natural Resources used the Penguin C this past summer to register ringed seals in Disko Bay.
The third of the large drones being used in Greenland is the Prion Mk3 from UAVE Ltd. It has a wing span of 3.8 m (12.4 ft.), a weight of less than 25 kg (55.1 lb.), and with a payload of 15 kg (33 lb.). Scientists will use the Prion Mk3 to measure particles in the atmosphere.
In 2019, Greenland plans to deploy the NT155 drone from England. It has a wingspan of 16 m (52.4 ft.), weighs 907 kg (1 ton), and has a payload of up to 400 kilos (881.8 lb.)
First tests in Denmark
Before it was delivered to Greenland, the Penguin B’s balance was optimized, and it was tested for instrument reliability and optimal flight ability.
“We are pleased with our business partner, UAS Test Center Denmark, which has helped us with the flying permission,” said Integra’s Thorsen. “In a secure setting and orderly conditions, we have tested our drone and completed the installations. The drone costs $433,000 U.S., and in Greenland, we must be able to monitor it, set the correct altitude and speed, and land it safely.”
The Danish authorities are friendly to the drone business, and allow for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flights in the test facilities, said Michael Larsen, head of the UAS Test Center Denmark.
“There is a great potential in testing the drones in Odense before they must fly in Greenland and Arctic,” he said. “It is a huge and interesting project and inspiring to watch the universities co-operate with the industry and Defence Command Denmark.”
“The drones have a great importance to the research activity in Northern Greenland in order to obtain high-resolution data,” said Prof. Skov. “It is appealing for international researchers to use [the VRS], with state-of-the-art laboratories, atmospheric observatory, and a mobile camp with snowmobiles and tracked vehicles.”
For 2018, more than 1,000 overnight stays have already been booked at VRS by researchers from Canada, Germany, Finland, South Korea, Russia, and other European countries.
Europe looks to the heavens
The European Space Agency (ESA) is one of the few space agencies in the world to combine responsibility for nearly all areas of space activity, from exploration to commercialization.
Article 2 of the ESA Convention states that the agency must “provide for and promote, for exclusively peaceful purposes, cooperation among European states in space research and technology and their space applications,” noted Norbert Hubner.
He is head of the Feasibility Studies Section in the Downstream Business Applications Department at the European Space Research and Technology Center in the Netherlands. Hubner spoke during a session on using robotics and unmanned systems for new business-oriented applications and services in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions at the TUS Nordics 2017 conference in Odense this month.
A related call for “Kick-start” proposals is currently open for submission.
The ESA’s new “Kick-start Activity” program offers funding up to 75% for innovative applications making use of existing space assets and services. The ESA will provide up to €60,000 ($69,830) per contract, and it is intended to benefit startups and small and midsize enterprises in member countries.
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Getting on the international drone map
Thanks to their UAS research initiatives, Denmark and Greenland are now on the international drone map, said Lars Christian Lilleholt, Danish climate and energy minister, at the ceremonial handover of the Penguin B to the VRS.
“Experts estimate that the global market for drones will multiply towards 2020 and that the annual sales of 140,000 drones in 2014 globally will increase to around 1.6 million drones in 2020,” he said. “In March 2016, there were given 375 business permissions in Denmark, and today, there are 1,281 permissions. It represents a growth over 300% in one year.”