KU News Release

Sept. 9, 2009
Contact: Ian Cahir, School of Engineering, (785) 864-2936

Successful flight of unmanned craft enhances KU's role in climate change research

LAWRENCE — An innovative unmanned aircraft conceived and built at the University of Kansas recently passed its first flight test, a crucial step on a path to help scientists gather better data at slower speeds and lower altitudes over treacherous icy terrain.

For scientists worldwide, the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets, a National Science Foundation-funded center based at KU, is a primary source of data on polar ice sheet thickness and other properties. The development of the Meridian UAV will enhance KU’s role at the forefront of global climate change research.

The 1,100-pound Meridian UAV is designed to gather data on the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland for CReSIS. The aircraft has been almost five years in the making under the direction of CReSIS autonomous platforms team leader Richard Hale, associate professor of aerospace engineering.

The unmanned craft will help researchers to compile better data by allowing flight passes at slower speeds and lower altitudes above the icy terrain, flights that might be too dangerous for human pilots. The Meridian would collect data on ice sheets using radar that sends an energy signal through several kilometers of ice and measures the reflection or vibration that returns.  From the return data, researchers can measure the ice thickness and conditions at the bottom of the glacier where the ice meets the bedrock.

“UAVs equipped with the right sensor package have a great potential to collect much-needed data over fast-flowing glaciers and rapidly changing areas of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets,” said Prasad Gogineni, director of CReSIS. “We at CReSIS are pleased with the first successful flight test in our effort to develop operational UAVs for polar research. I congratulate Dr. Hale, his colleagues and the students involved in the project.”

Hale said the team of KU students would have preferred to find a pre-made vehicle but in the end, building a vehicle from the ground up was the best option. In the field, the Meridian will carry specialized radar, also being developed at KU, on long-range missions in potentially inhospitable climate.

“We are really just getting started in bringing this new capability to bear on the globally significant mission of CReSIS, but I am thrilled that our students see the initial success of their efforts,” Hale said.  “Now we can begin investigating the integrated vehicle sensor system.”

The successful late-August flight in restricted airspace at Fort Riley marks the beginning of a new phase for the project, Hale said. The Meridian UAV will be taken for more flight tests in Utah over the next few weeks, and the expectation is the aircraft will make test flights in Antarctica later this year.

CReSIS is a Science and Technology Center established by the NSF in 2005, with the mission of developing new technologies and computer models to measure and predict the response of sea level change to the mass balance of ice sheets in Polar Regions. CReSIS is comprised of six partner universities, with the headquarters at KU. The other universities are Elizabeth City State University, Haskell Indian Nations University, Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University and the University of Maine. In addition to this core group, CReSIS collaborates with several international institutions and industry partners.

The University of Kansas is a major comprehensive research and teaching university. University Relations is the central public relations office for KU's Lawrence campus.

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