Stanford researchers use radar drone to monitor ice caps and predict sea level rise

STANFORD, Calif. (KGO) — They are some of the most challenging research environments on the planet. But understanding the forces driving massive ice sheets in places like Greenland and Antarctica could be key to predicting the future of climate change and sea level rise.

Enter Stanford engineer Thomas Teisberg and the unmanned drone dubbed “Peregrine.” The drone is designed to carry an ice-penetrating radar capable of collecting data from miles below the surface.

“It’s our tool for understanding what’s under the ice, which is one of the most critical things in understanding how this ice cap is going to evolve in the future,” says Theisberg.

Antennas are mounted in the wings, with other instruments also sheltered from the weather. The Stanford team recently field tested the aircraft in Iceland. Ice-penetrating radar is said to have been in use for decades, but has been expensive to deploy. They now hope the drone-based system will allow researchers around the world to monitor endangered ice sheets more closely and generate more detailed data.

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“We’re dramatically reducing the cost of collecting that data. And we’re making it so that we can collect data more often, overnight, in bad weather, and we can address that lack of data,” Theisberg says.

Last year, we featured a team from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, which is deploying sensors from aircraft to study the effect of warming oceans on Greenland’s ice shelves. Other researchers are using a variety of technologies, including satellite imagery and ground-based systems to collect data on the ice sheet at different locations.

“I think real-time data and more frequently sampled data have tremendous value,” says Professor Dustin Schroeder, Ph.D., of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability.

Professor Schroeder leads Stanford’s Radioglaciology Research Group and oversees the drone project, which was developed on the Stanford campus. He thinks the technology could also be coupled with artificial intelligence to better target measurements over large areas.

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“We know that ice sheets are very dynamic, that their processes change much more frequently than once, or go back every few decades or even every year. We know that there are processes that take place on the scale of tides, or on the scale of seasons or on the scale of days. And so the ability to put sensors in place that can capture that precise timescale is really transformative,” Prof. Schroeder believes.

Antarctica is of particular interest to researchers, where a major ice shelf recently collapsed. They say sudden ruptures can release even more ice from glaciers behind them, adding to sea level rise. And developing technologies to better understand and predict events is becoming increasingly urgent.

“There are still a lot of uncertainties that we could reduce. Exactly how much will melt and exactly how fast and there is a lot of value for planners, especially in coastal communities and your critical infrastructure where there could be roads or vulnerable communities,” says Theisberg.

Perhaps stating the broad, long-term mission of an evolving technology.

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