STANFORD, Calif. (KGO) -- They're among the harshest research environments on the planet. But understanding the forces driving massive ice sheets in areas like Greenland and Antarctica could be critical for predicting the future of climate change and sea level rise.
Enter Stanford engineer Thomas Teisberg and the unmanned drone dubbed Peregrine. The drone is designed to carry ice penetrating radar, which is able to gather data miles beneath the surface.
"This is our tool for understanding what lies underneath the ice, which is one of the most critical inputs to understanding how this ice sheet is going to evolve in the future," explains Teisberg.
Antennae are mounted in the wings, with other instruments also sheltered from the weather. The Stanford team recently field tested the aircraft in Iceland. They say the ice penetrating radar been used for decades, but it's been expensive to deploy. They're now hoping the drone-based system will allow researchers from around the world to monitor threatened ice sheets more closely and generate more detailed data.
"We reduce the cost of collecting this data dramatically. And we make it so we can collect data more of the time, during the night, in more adverse weather, and we can solve this data gap," says Teisberg.
Last year, we profiled a team from the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, which is deploying sensors from aircraft to study the effect that warming oceans are having on ice shelfs in Greenland. Other researchers are using a variety of technologies, including satellite imagery and ground-based systems to gather ice sheet data in different locations.
"I think there's tremendous value to both real time data and just data that's sampled more frequently," explains professor Dustin Schroeder, Ph.D., of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability.
Professor Schroeder heads up the Stanford Radio Glaciology Research Group and is overseeing the drone project, which underwent development on the Stanford campus. He believes the technology could also be coupled with artificial intelligence to better target the measurements over large areas.
"We know that ice sheets are very dynamic, that their processes evolve far more frequently than once ever, or going back every few decades, or even every year. We know there are processes that take place over the scale of tides, or the scale of seasons or the scale of days. And so the ability to put sensors out there that can capture that fine-tuned timescale is really transformative," prof. Schroeder believes.
Antarctica has been of particular interest to researchers, where a major ice shelf recently collapsed. They say the sudden breaks can release even more ice from the glaciers behind them, adding to sea level rise. And developing technologies to more accurately understand and predict the events is becoming more urgent.
"There's still a lot of uncertainty we could reduce. Exactly how much is going to melt and exactly how fast and there's a lot of value to planners, especially in coastal communities and your critical infrastructure where there might be roads or vulnerable communities," says Teisberg.
Perhaps laying out the broad long-term mission for an evolving technology.
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