Drones Give Protector the Cutting Edge in Polar Ice

Drone experts from Culdrose have given the Royal Navy’s Antarctic research ship ‘eyes in the sky’ to help HMS Protector punch through the polar ice.Seventeen of the icebreaker’s crew are now qualified in operating drones from the deck of the ship, which has just completed her stint around the frozen continent for this season.

It’s Protector’s task to update seafaring charts of Antarctic waters, deliver supplies and personnel to remote research stations, monitor wildlife and the environment and uphold the UK’s long-standing responsibilities to this unique part of the world.

That mission, even at the height of the austral summer, often takes her through ice.

Although the ship has an extensive flight deck, she doesn’t have a hangar and so deploys to polar regions without any air support – until the advent of drones.
700X’s Petty Officer John Simpole and Marine Tom Salt spent six weeks on board Protector training crew in the use of ‘off-the-shelf’ drones.

The more adventurous sailors got to grips with Evolve Dynamics’ Sky Mantis. It can cope with heavy rain and winds of up to 40kts/45mph, conducting flights lasting 60 minutes.

Other crew learned to operate smaller radio-controlled craft – all to the benefit of the ship’s day-to-day operations in polar regions.

“A drone provides Protector with an additional tool to safely assess ice conditions around the vessel,” explained Lieutenant Retallick, the ship’s First Lieutenant.

“They can be used to identify areas of ice concentration and ‘leads’ – gaps – in the ice which help the ship to navigate through complex ice-infested waters.”

The Sky Mantis has been used more widely: it’s been flown from Protector to make assessments of nearby historic monuments, shoreline conditions for boat access and even conduct wildlife surveys. By using its 30x optical zoom camera, it can do so at a safe distance to ensure wildlife remains undisturbed.

To qualify as drone pilots, crew had to undergo several lessons – regulations, meteorology and the use of aviation charts – and a theory exam, before conducting several live sorties during which they were assessed.

“In spite of the sometimes-challenging environmental conditions and having to work around the ship’s programme, we achieved everything we set out to do, as well as being able to train up extra personnel,” said PO Simpole.

700X is the Royal Navy’s dedicated drone squadron, working with the latest technologies, developing tactics and operational uses for small, remote-controlled aircraft, such as the Puma which has been used regularly around the globe over the past few years for reconnaissance and surveillance.

In spite of the sometimes-challenging environmenta

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