A unique pilot project uses drone technology to help track declining polar bear populations in the Arctic.
Svalbard, Norway is a rugged archipelago dotting the Arctic Ocean, halfway between Norway and the North Pole. At about 80-degrees north latitude, it is the northernmost inhabited place on Earth, home to about 3,000 people.
The rugged landscape is snowy tundra, too fierce for trees or other looming vegetation, but marine mammals thrive here. It is also home to one of the planet’s most magnificent and threatened animals: the polar bear.
Because their habitat is spread out over vast areas, polar bears are particularly hard to track. It’s costly to fly helicopters into remote habitats and the noise and installation of tracking devices is dangerous for researchers and stressful for the bears.
This summer, arctic conservationist Ole J. Liodden teamed up with Intel to pilot a theory that drones could be used as a noninvasive way to track and document polar bears in Svalbard.
“I was skeptical about what we could do with this drone,” said Liodden, a photographer, explorer and founder of the Polar Bears & Humans Project. “But I started to call polar bear researchers and they were interested — apparently, they’d been looking into drones for some time.”
Polar bears are white animals, typically living on a white background, and in the drifting ice, so spotting them is tough. Because helicopters can’t get close enough, thermal imaging hasn’t been very effective because polar bears are such well-insulated animals, they don’t give off much heat.
Tracking the polar bears’ behavior, breeding, feeding and migration habits helps scientists not only understand the effects of climate change on the Arctic, but also the health of the entire planet.
Polar bears have adapted to living off the ice, slowing their metabolisms and storing up energy to carry them through the summer months, when their food supply is scarce.
Due to a warmer climate, Liodden said, the ice disappears earlier and earlier.
“When the ice retreats, then the polar bears can’t eat their main food supply — the seals,” said Liodden. “They have to wait for ice.”
Like a Bird in the Sky
In July, Jeffrey Lo, a drone pilot at Intel, joined Liodden and a dozen crewmates on a 70-foot icebreaker to test the use of an Intel Falcon 8+ drone to track polar bears. Despite the summer season, Lo loaded on the layers to stay warm.
“I started with a thermal undershirt, then another shirt, then a fleece, then a vest, then another jacket,” he said. “And a windbreaker on top of that. Plus a hat and gloves. It was a lot of layers.”
Lo’s job was to pilot the Falcon 8+, a robust drone that’s used for inspections of aircraft and bridges, and to survey construction, mining and agricultural sites.
He said the drone’s nimble ability to get to remote areas and photograph the bears could help scientists conduct research of sensitive areas, such as breeding dens — if the females are breeding and healthy, then so generally speaking, is the population.
“Drones are much less invasive than traditional tracking methods,” said Lo. This is believed to be the first time a drone had been used to capture aerial data on the behavioral patterns of polar bears, without disrupting their environment.
The team was uncertain how it would hold up amid the challenges of an extreme location, including wind, battery-draining cold and the constant pitching of the boat.
The steel in metal boats can disturb the electromagnetic fields required to calibrate drone compasses, so most drones need a flat surface to calibrate.
“The Falcon 8+ doesn’t have that issue,” said Lo. “We could pull it out and set it on the deck, and even if the boat is pitching and rolling, we can just fire it up, and it goes.”
The drones are battery operated, piloted via a remote control used by the pilot on the ground. Their eight propellers help them navigate efficiently, giving off zero emission and nearly imperceptible noise pollution.
It took two days of searching before the crew found polar bears and, at first, only the experienced guides could see them.
“They’d say, ‘There’s a bear up there’ and we were like, ‘Where?’” said Lo, seeing nothing but a white dot on the tundra. “But then we got the drone up and we flew it about a half a kilometer away from the ship, about 100 meters up in the air, and sure enough, there was a bear.”
He said the resolution was so good, they could see the bear’s face as it looked up then went back to sleep. The drone’s ultra-sensitive thermal imaging camera payload made it easy to spot the bears against the colder background.
“Getting to see a polar bear in its natural environment … It was pretty amazing,” said Lo, who’d only ever seen one at the zoo.
Shooting with Cameras, Not Guns
Climate change is threatening polar bear populations around the world, but perhaps also by unsustainable hunting.
Between 800 and 1,000 polar bears are still shot every year, according to Liodden. The amount hunters can get for pelts has increased by more than 400 percent since 2000, said Liodden. The price of a single polar bear skin at auction in Canada can reach $20,000. If sold in China, a stuffed bear can reach $100,000 — close to the price of 1 kilogram of poached rhino horns.
“If this continues we might have the same problem as rhinos in Africa,” he said.
The Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears in 1973 was a good start to stem sport hunting of polar bears, said Liodden. But the law fell short in addressing the controversial issue of hunting rights in traditional native communities.
“My mission is not to stop Inuit and other native communities from earning a living, but I believe some of these communities can turn to ecotourism instead,” said Liodden. “Live animals have a higher value than dead animals. With modern trophy hunting, visitors can ‘shoot’ with cameras instead of guns.”
Liodden travels around the world, educating native communities on the benefits of ecotourism. He believes that creating an industry where tourists can come to view or photograph bears will provide economic benefits for generations to come.
Liodden lives outside Oslo, about 1,200 miles south of Svalbard, but having just completed his 38th expedition to the islands, he’s seen firsthand the struggles of the polar bear population. The footage and data captured by drones can hopefully help scientists in the future understand what’s happening not only with receding ice, but with the bears themselves.
“Polar bears are a symbol of the Arctic. They are strong, intelligent animals,” said Liodden.
“If they become extinct, there will be challenges with our entire ecosystem. Drone technology can hopefully help us get ahead of these challenges to better understand our world and preserve the Earth’s environment.”