Innovative sailing and flying drone monitors Arctic wildlife | Polarjournal
A catamaran-like structure and two sails that convert into wings when needed that’s “SailMAV,” a brainchild of a Swiss-British research project. Image: EMPA / Imperial College London

When monitoring Arctic wildlife, scientists face the problem of the proximity to humans. On the other hand, drones are equally disruptive while fixed camera systems are not flexible enough and only work well on land. A research team has now developed a type of drone that could solve the issues, because it can fly and sail.

Silently monitoring Arctic wildlife on water or on the shore and, if necessary, simply flying somewhere else, landing on the water and sailing on – that’s what SailMAV can do, the latest development by a research team from the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research EMPA and a research group at Imperial College London. Weighing only about 520 grams, the drone can fold its wings into sails once it is afloat, allowing it to drift quietly on the water’s surface. Should a change of location become necessary, it unfolds the 3-part sails again, starts its engines and takes off again within seconds and a few meters. Quite simple, actually.

The man behind the project is Dr. André Farinha, an expert in robotics and environmental monitoring at the Sustainable Robotics group at EMPA and currently a member of the Aerial Robotics Laboratory research group at the Imperial College in London. He and his colleagues have developed SailMAV (MAV = Micro Aerial Vehicle) and believe that this type of drone can make a significant contribution in researching the effects of climate change on Arctic and alpine regions. ” Aquatic birds or mammals on shore are not disturbed by “SailMAV”, allowing the drone to make unbiased statements about, for example, the effects of climate change on the state of the ecosystem,” comments Dr. Farinha.

Drones are popular in research for aerial surveys, but the small aircraft are too noisy and are considered a disruptive factor. In addition, their capabilities and ranges are limited. That’s why many countries have placed tight restrictions on the use of these flying systems. Drones are particularly restricted over water, because the devices cannot float and a crash could not only harm or kill animals, but also poses a threat to the environment.

To solve all these challenges, André Farinha and the expert teams came up with the idea of developing a drone that is at home in both worlds, air and water. Although the physical requirements for such an object are sometimes diametrically opposed, the development team managed to work around these difficulties. “”We were finally able to optimize the aerodynamic properties after mathematical modeling and building some prototypes in such a way that “SailMAV” can actually sail on the water like a catamaran and fly with its wings open,” Dr. Farinha continues.

The solution to the requirement to be able to fly and sail is provided by the three-part wings, which can be quickly folded into sails and deployed to a wingspan of one meter within two seconds. To save weight when flying while being stable enough for sailing, the two floats were designed like those of a catamaran and consist of a polymer foam in a thin carbon shell coated with a water-repellent nanoparticle layer. A camera system allows close animal observations and steering while flying.

However, development of the drone is not yet complete. The team is currently looking into possibilities for autonomous flying and sailing. To do so, they need more sensors on the device. In addition, SailMAV still needs to be adapted and tested for the somewhat more extreme conditions in the Arctic and alpine regions, and additional sensors to measure environmental data need to be added. But once the device is completed, researchers will have a unique platform that should provide deeper insights into Arctic wildlife than ever before… and quietly at that.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

Link to the EMPA website

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