The wide-open spaces of the Arctic are a dream for drone science. A maneuverable eye in the sky has made unmanned aircraft a go-to method for counting sea lion populations, mapping ice cover, and perhaps one day for search-and-rescue operations off Alaska’s coast.
But small drones bring their own inconveniences, too, like limited flight time and a small payload. That was a problem for the U.S. federal research facility Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), which needed something that could carry lots of equipment to measure solar irradiance, three-dimensional windspeed, and analyze air particulates. It needed an aircraft to help climate scientists understand what’s happening in an ecosystem undergoing a massive transformation. However, a manned aircraft would be too expensive (and potentially dangerous), and no existing drone fit the bill.
So PNNL decided to build its own: