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A Flexrotor drone is shown landing on the deck of a ship during a mission in the Arctic. (Photos courtesy of Fairweather Science, LLC.’s 2016 Arctic Program and Jake Weber, Precision Integrated)

Navigating Arctic sea ice and fog can be a daunting prospect for even the most seasoned ship crews. But long-range imaging reconnaissance provided by an unmanned aircraft from Washington’s Aerovel Corp. turned one recent expedition into a demonstration of all that is possible with drone technology.

A workboat fleet was sent out this summer north of Alaska to retrieve massive anchors from mooring sites spread across the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. On board the lead ship was a Flexrotor, a small craft that would serve as a guide for the joint mission by Aerovel, Precision Integrated and Fairweather Science.

In a little over two weeks, the Flexrotor flew five flights totaling 19 hours, and guided the fleet through otherwise slow seas choked with ice. The seafloor gear was retrieved without incident and the ships headed for home weeks ahead of schedule.

Tad McGeer is president and chief engineer of the company he founded 10 years ago in Bingen, Wash., in the state’s Columbia River Gorge. Prior to Flexrotor, he founded Insitu, which created the military-grade surveillance drone ScanEagle. McGeer left the company in 2005 and it was bought by Boeing Co. in 2008 for a reported $400 million.

Flexrotor looks down on her base, an anchor handling tug supply vessel, surrounded by ice in the Chukchi Sea.
Flexrotor looks down on her base, an anchor handling tug supply vessel, surrounded by ice in the Chukchi Sea.

“Flexrotor is in a class all its own for this sort of work,” Matt Parker, vice president of Oregon’s Precision Integrated, said in a news release. Precision was contracted by Alaska’s Fairweather Science to execute the mission. “Its small footprint makes onboard setup quick and easy; launch and retrieval are done with no disruption to the ship’s activity; and its long range and endurance are immensely powerful. This was the first genuinely sustained and economically successful mission for unmanned aircraft aboard ship in the Arctic. We’ll soon be doing many more.”

Video from the drone, which was streamed to viewers in real-time through the boat’s satellite link, offered an impressive view of the environment in which the fleet set out to work.

The yellow aircraft is shown executing a vertical takeoff from the helipad of a ship that served as its base. Airborne footage shows the ship below, surrounded by ice. A surfacing whale even makes an appearance to showcase the immense beauty of the surroundings. Getting in and out of those surroundings with as little impact as possible was one of the goals of those involved.

“We are always careful to tread lightly in the Arctic and wanted to avoid breaking sea ice on this mission to minimize our environmental presence,” said Justin Blank, senior scientist and project manager at Fairweather Science. “Flexrotor’s imaging was vital, but its small size and low noise were big advantages as well.”

Watch the Flexrotor in action in the video below:

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