Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Aloft at Sea

Hello fair readers, I am back for an update in a new time zone. An interesting thing happens while traveling around the Antarctic circle, in this case following a course due west (and a little bit south). We are clicking off time zones every couple of days, traveling at a comfortable pace of about 10 knots. Just this very morning we set our clocks back an hour and an email from the captain alerted us that come 0200 (2am) tonight (ok, really tomorrow morning…) we will yet again be jumping back another hour. At some point in the next week, we will hit the International Date Line and just like that, we will lose a day!
Time travel aside, let’s get down to brass tax. The last few days have been pretty low key punctuated by moments of incredible scenery paired with a ton of production work. As per usual, we have our stations where we deploy the CTD and a float, or are on a recovery mission to pluck a float out of the water.
As we approach these stations I am always keeping a very keen eye on the weather. I don’t concern myself much with the temperature (uh, cold?), my primary focus is on the winds and what is coming out of the sky.
“Why is that so important, Ted?”
Oh you really know the questions to ask! The short answer? Drones.

Or perhaps you prefer the term, “UAS”? Either way getting up in the air and capturing the magnificent scenery we encounter is always on my mind. I spent countless hours filling out paperwork, studying to pass the FAA part 107 UAS certification test and emailing back and forth with the good people working with the US Antarctic Program to be allowed to fly a UAS off of the ship. Not flying is not an option.

So every day the first thing I check is the wind. Down here, there is always wind and usually it is blowing pretty hard. Most days the wind is 20-30 knots before factoring in the speed of the ship. For me to fly, I need a day where the wind is below 10-12 knots. Add to that, there can’t be water of any kind falling from the sky and I need a high cloud ceiling (no fog).
But sometimes even in the open ocean, the wind falls off and the clouds lift just enough. On those occasions, I take to the sky.
Here is the windspeed I like to see!
“So what’s it like flying down there?”
Flying in the Southern Ocean has its pros and cons. Having done extensive research long before stepping foot on the Palmer, I was mostly aware of the pitfalls.
For starters, weather can change quickly and unpredictably. Over a short period of time the winds can pick up or foul weather can roll in. I experienced this just yesterday. We were on station about to deploy our 10th float and the wind was staying around 9 knots. As I went up to the bridge to talk with the Captain about flying, the snow began to fall and out in the distance there was a storm front moving towards us. While the snow was light, it wasn’t worth the chance of an electrical failure should it find its way into the UAS. Add in the unpredictability of what was coming towards us and I decided to err on the side of caution and cancel the flight.

From my research I have also learned that GPS signals can be unreliable and down here. DJI explicitly states in their user manual that their aircrafts are not rated for polar regions. Fortunately, this has yet to be a problem. There has only been one flight so far that registered a lost GPS signal and that was only for about 5 seconds. (Most flights are in range of 8-20 satellites) I have trained to fly the drone without the aid of GPS, but losing a signal mid-flight can feel like a mini crisis if one is not prepared.

Pro Tip: Learn to fly in ATTI mode (for DJI drones) The lack of GPS hold takes a lot of practice, but if you fly, there will come a time that you lose GPS mid-flight and you will need to know how to respond.

Another major concern is proper calibration of the IMU and the compass. Before my first flight, I went out on the helideck to run a calibration. Due to the nature of being on a large metal ship with any number of radios, radar and large metal containers, I could not get the compass to get a clean calibration. Without a properly calibrated compass the drone will not be able to properly orient itself and the use of GPS could be disastrous. After moving around the ship and trying to calibrate at a number of locations, I was finally able to get a proper calibration on the top deck, just behind the bridge. Launching from the helideck still proved problematic though, as the magnetic interference caused the UAS to behave in an unpredictable fashion until I was about 20ft. above the ship.

The IMU is a separate story. Before my third flight, the UAS gave me a dreaded “calibrate IMU” and obstacle avoidance sensors. I say dreaded because generally you need a flat, level surface to calibrate the IMU… not easy to come by on a rocking ship. This also meant that I had to download DJI software that was about 100 Mb. Easy? Not so much. The internet out here is slow and there are about 40 people trying to use it. Luckily one of the system admins, Scott was able to get it to trickle download at a whopping speed of about 2 kb per second. 14 hours later and I was in business! As luck would have it, re-calibration was a success and I was up and flying the next day.
Flying a drone, or eating ice cream? - Pablo Cohn

Pro Tip: Going on a trip with your UAS? Make sure you have all support software downloaded and installed before you leave(and update your firmware). Nothing worse than a drone that can’t fly.

So all of my major concerns have turned out to be not so bad. What has actually been the biggest bane to flying down here is birds! I have met a seagull or 2 in my day that did not like having a drone around. I always found that quickly climbing made for an easy get away. Well, the birds down here are a bit more agile than your standard seagull and their temperament is as icy cold as the sea. When one takes an interest, they will chase you down and provide an unwelcome escort back to the ship (assuming they don't take you out of the sky first).

Pro tip: If your ticking off some birds, bring the UAS back and land. Unless they are nesting, they will usually fly away and you can be back up in the air shortly.
Bird Attack! - Pablo Cohn

With all of these things to think about, the reality is that flying down here has been amazing… so far (trying not to jinx myself) All my flying is over water and once you get over the anxiety of your UAS taking a drink, it is actually a fairly easy place to fly. There is virtually nothing out here to hit. Even when we got in close to a massive iceberg, it is no different than flying near a building. Sure, after 20 minutes you can’t feel your fingers, but a few minutes back in the bridge and your good to go again. Even the batteries are performing great down here.

Pro tip: Leave your batteries indoors or keep them insulated and close to your body when flying in cold weather. Remember, a cold battery can fail. Most of DJI’s drones will let you know if the battery is too cold to fly. If that happens, try letting the props spin up without taking off, as the battery is consumed it generates heat and should warm up fairly quickly.

The footage I am getting is really looking good. As ever, I re-watch every clip with a critical eye and take a lot of notes. My biggest advice would be to take some time and consider what type of shots you want to get before taking to the air. Each location and situation down here has been different and only after reviewing footage did I realize some missed opportunities. That probably should have been a pro tip.
The Palmer, 1/11/17 @ 12:15am
If King Neptune should be so gracious, I will be granted more opportunities to fly over the next 10 days. I can’t wait to get back and start to share some of these wonderful sights with all of you.

Until next time,


  1. Ted I just caught up on you last 2 posts. This is some amazing video and pictures. Glad to see you are in high spirits and enjoy the ice cream! LOL. See you when you get back brother!

  2. So proud of you Ted! What an amazing opportunity. Love reading up on the posts! The Ziembiec's

  3. Another great post Ted...very technical for me but loving it.

  4. Wow Ted! What an amazing adventure. I admire your technical expertise, good humor and very interesting posts. Hoping to see your pics when you thaw out. Aunt Cathy

  5. Great pics. Next flight we need a pic of the brave pilot in action. Until then...