The British Antarctic Survey (BAS), which collaborated with the Technical University of Braunschweig, in Germany, on the project, said the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) completed 20 flights between October and December 2007.

It is hoped that the breakthrough will open up a major new technique for gathering scientific data about sea ice and its sensitivity to climate change.

The electric UAVs, which are launched by catapult and radio-controlled during take-off and landing, are completely autonomous during flight and follow a pre-programmed flight plan.

Dr Phil Anderson of BAS, one of the team who carried out the project, said: “Waiting for the UAV to return safely after its research mission was very exciting.

“Seeing the first UAV come back successfully was a real heart-in-the-mouth moment.”

Each flight lasts for 40 minutes and the UAVs can cover 45km and take 100 measurements a second, allowing scientists to study areas that are too costly to reach using ships or conventional aircraft.

“UAVs allow scientists to reach the parts others cannot reach,” Dr Anderson added. “The future of much atmospheric research will be robotic.”

Although the team faced a number of challenges – such as keeping the Lithium battery packs operating at very low temperatures – the scientists said it was the perfect place to pioneer the technology as there were very few obstacles.

The UAVs were fitted with instruments to record the exchange of heat between the lower atmosphere and sea ice.

During the Antarctic winter, bright white sea ice reflects heat and helps to cool the planet, however scientists still do not fully understand its role in the Earth’s climate system.

BAS’ next challenge will be to operate the UAVs during the middle of the Antarctic winter, when temperatures at the Halley research station where the scientists are based can drop as low as -50 degrees Celsius.

Kate Martin

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