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Researchers' craft to fly frosty solo flight

R. Steve Dick/University Relations

Edmond Leong, Taipa, Macall, master's student in aerospace engineering, and Rick Hale, associate professor of aerospace engineering, work on an unmanned aerial vehicle that will take measurements of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica.

Imagine traveling several hundred kilometers to work (say, the distance from Lawrence to Omaha), working a regular eight-hour day in temperatures 40 degrees below zero and then making the commute back home with loads of information.

Researchers at KU are building an aircraft that can make that trip in Antarctica – without a pilot.

"This is not the type of mission you want to put a pilot in," said Rick Hale, associate professor of aerospace engineering. "Flying close to the ground, 1,000 meters off the ground, in the harshest climate you can imagine, the consequences of a crash are severe."

Hale is working with researchers at KU's Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets to build the Meridian Unmanned Aerial Vehicle.

He and a graduate student are traveling to Antarctica on Dec. 10 to test a small-scale model aircraft.

A full-scale aircraft will be tested in late summer 2007 and put to use in Greenland in 2008 and Antarctica in 2009.

The Meridian would collect data on ice sheets using ground-penetrating radar. That radar sends an energy signal through several kilometers of ice and then measures the reflection or vibration that returns.

From the return energy, researchers can measure the ice thickness and conditions at the bottom of the glacier where the ice meets the bedrock.

"The only way to know is to map out the bottom of the ice – to know is there water down there? Is the rock being ground up by the motion and therefore acting like marbles and allowing the glacier to slide along that? We just don't know," Hale said. To collect data, the radar needs to be airborne to get widespread coverage of the glacier. But constructing an aircraft more capable than larger, piloted planes has presented researchers with some challenges.

"If ice builds up along the wing on a vehicle this size, it loses its aerodynamic efficiency very quickly, so we'd lose the vehicle," said Hale.

This means engineers must consider an anti-icing concept for the vehicle, as well as a temperature control system for electronics on board.

They are also developing three modes of communication to stay in touch with the aircraft: by remote control during take-off and landing, by radio frequency during near-field operations and by satellite when the aircraft is up to 600 kilometers away.

"It's a great science experiment, I think we can make a real difference to the science mission by enabling them (researchers) to get more airtime," he said.

Just as important as the science experiment, the Meridian has also made a difference in the way Hale and other professors teach aerospace engineering at KU.

They are using the vehicle to teach graduate and undergraduate students in 12 different courses.

"Even the prototypes we're flying now are better equipped and better instrumented," he said. "So we're taking cutting edge technologies and getting them into the classroom."

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