Testing Solar-Powered Aircraft in the Arctic

The Autonomous Systems Laboratory has developed a pioneering solar-powered drone, the AtlantikSolar, a drone that can fly for days continuously. ETH Zurich’s glaciologists need further endurance to deal with the immensity of the glacial landscape, where they monitored the glaciers in Greenland using UAVs.


Qaanaaq, northwest Greenland (77◦N, about 600 permanent inhabitants), is surrounded by tens of calving glaciers, reachable by airplane, and has all facilities (shop, renting house, internet, …). It is therefore an ideal place for hosting this project!


Shortly after arriving in early June, we had to face our first major issue: the sand of the landing spot identified last year was blown away by strong winds in winter time. Without any smooth, non-rocky landing site, AtlantikSolar could potentially break when touching the ground, or at minimum damage the downward facing camera payload. After almost one week of manual work to improvise a safe landing strip over Qaanaaq’s rocky terrain, another unexpected obstacle presented itself: fog started to cover the sky of Qaanaaq in a sustained fashion, with the consequence of grounding AtlantikSolar for another several days.


Most interestingly, AltantikSolar’s mapping revealed a large crevasse upstream at the front. A few days later, some glaciologist colleagues went to Bowdoin and kept monitoring the propagation of the crack, until it suddenly collapsed. All together, we now have a unique set of data – describing all the fracturing phases – for improving the numerical modelling of calving, a complex and still not fully understood mechanism, which play a major role in the sea level rise.


You can check out their video below:


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