British Antarctic Survey (BAS) researchers are preparing to test their new Windracers ULTRA autonomous drone in Antarctica, as they search for ever more efficient ways to monitor the polar region.

The Windracers UAV is capable of carrying 100 kg of cargo or sensors up to 1000 km, including a wide range of scientific sensors, probes and cameras.

The aircraft, which can be transported in a shipping container, is heading south for its inaugural flight on the icy continent this Antarctic field season from January to March 2024.

British Antarctic Survey monitoring

This forms part of BAS’s plans to automate its science platforms and reach net zero carbon emissions by 2040.

BAS currently used a fleet of Twin Otter aircraft. If the ULTRA UAV proves a success, more could join the BAS fleet in the coming years.

Designed for extreme environments like Antarctica, the Windracers uncrewed drone is a fully autonomous, twin-engine, 10-metre fixed-winged aircraft.

It can take off, fly and land safely with minimal ground operator oversight thanks to its sophisticated autopilot system Masterless, developed and patented by Distributed Avionics.

The first ULTRA to be used by BAS will not feature skis that enable it to land on snow or ice, but future iterations could be equipped with the devices.

Speaking at the unveiling, Stephen Wright, co-founder and chairman of Windracers, said: “This is a culmination of seven years work. To be out there involved in the science is terrific.

“We have developed this deliberately from the start to be able to carry a large payload of 100kg over 1,000km. It is allows us to do the exciting science that BAS has got planned out in the Antarctic.

Windracers ULTRA

Incorporating a high level of redundancy, the ULTRA can continue to fly even if one of the engines or components is damaged or fails.

The flexible platform can also be configured as required to carry a range of sensors for collecting scientific data.

Using AI-driven SWARM technology multiple autonomous drones can organise themselves as a single unified system – for example to collect science data across a larger area.

Dr Tom Jordan, science lead Antarctic SWARM project, said: “Polar regions are one of the areas of the world that are changing the fastest and the most significantly as the climate changes.

“The job of a polar scientist is to observe these changes and also understand these changes, why are they happening, why are these changes happening so fast. This understanding we get from the observations feeds through into the models, and the better those models are, it means we can make better forecasts and predictions about what is going to happen going into the future.”

The project is being funded by Innovate UK’s Future Flight 3 Challenge and is part of its pilot programme called ‘Protecting environments with uncrewed aerial vehicle swarms’.
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