Researchers at the University of Kansas in 2005 started looking for an unmanned aerial vehicle that could carry 120 pounds worth of radar equipment at low altitudes and over icy terrain.
The Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets, which is based at the university, planned to use the UAV to measure ice thickness at the bottom layers of polar glaciers.
The price tag for such a vehicle was $30 million, according to Richard D. Hale, an aerospace engineering professor there. So Hale and a team of students built their own — for about $500,000.
The project began four years ago and was funded by the National Science Foundation, which that year had established the ice-sensing center at Kansas. The center’s goal is to develop technologies that better predict how quickly sea levels are rising — information that is vital to the Navy.
The unmanned aerial vehicle, called the Meridian, has now completed two domestic test flights, and it departs this month for Antarctica. There, it will begin taking radar images of ice sheets up to 3 kilometers below the glacial surface. The specialized radar allows researchers to see how sheet thickness changes across large tracks of ice.
This could give scientists a more complete picture of ice conditions, and will help determine more precisely the rate at which the polar ice caps are melting.
“There’s a great deal of data on the surface of the ice,” Hale says. “But there’s very little info on what’s going on below the surface.”
The Meridian weighs 1,100 pounds and can cover more than 1,000 miles with the 120-pound radar attached.