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Flyability’s Elios Helps Researchers Study Some of the Deepest Ice Caves in the World

BY Zacc Dukowitz
10 September 2020

A video released today by Flyability highlights an expedition the company helped make to Greenland accompanied by world-renowned researchers and explorers.

The goal of the expedition was to study the ice shafts and caves in the area, which are some of the deepest in the world.

Flyability Helps Scientists Explore the Deepest Ice Caves in the World in Greenland

Researchers wanted to reach the very bottom of the ice shafts, called moulins, so that they could study the movement of water deep underground to better understand the impact climate change is having on the ice sheet in Greenland.

Prior to this expedition, they had attempted to climb to the bottom of some of the moulins but could only make it about 400 feet—less than halfway down.

Using Flyability’s Elios drone, they were able to fly to the very bottom of the moulins—some of which were almost 1,000 feet deep—and collect video on the conditions there. One of the unique findings they made with the Elios was to capture video footage of an icy lake at the base of an ice shaft (shown in the video above at 1:03).

Using Drones to Access the Inaccessible

The Greenland expedition took place in 2018 and was sponsored by apparel company Moncler.

The primary focus for researchers was a remote area located about 40 to 60 miles east of Kangerlussuaq, where scientists wanted to study the movement of water deep underground to better understand the effects of climate change on the melting ice.

Greenland presents a treasure trove of scientific opportunities for climate scientists, as well for a variety of other types of researchers. This fact is made clear when you look at the fields of study for those who went on the mission—the list includes titles as diverse as geologist, glaciologist, speleologist, geographer, geneticist, microbiologist, and biologist.

There were also a few professional thrill-seekers who accompanied the research team, including Michele Pontrandolfo, an Italian polar explorer who has completed some of the most difficult solo crossings in the world in places like Patagonia, Iceland, and the Arctic Ocean (among others).

In addition to these seasoned explorers and researchers, Flyability team members attended to help fly the Elios and navigate logistics with the drone.

Photo credit: Alessio Romeo—Courtesy of Moncler

The Elios presented an ideal tool for this expedition because it was made for tough missions.

Sitting in a cage (as shown in the image above), it has a unique collision-tolerant design that allows it to enter narrow, confined spaces that might otherwise ruin a drone.

Entering a moulin that runs 300 meters deep is very dangerous, especially when the conditions farther down within the shaft are unknown. Thanks to its collision-tolerance and other features we’ve developed to help inspectors fly in challenging indoor environments, the Elios presented a unique solution for explorers to reach the bottom of the moulin.

– Geoffroy le Pivain, Flyability Product Manager

Research and Exploration

The Greenland ice sheet is almost two miles thick in some areas, and it’s the second largest ice body in the world (Antarctica has the first largest).

In the southern part of the ice sheet, where the Flyability mission took place, seasonal melting creates rivers on the surface of the ice. These rivers sink through the ice, forming deep vertical shafts in the ice—the moulins we referred to above.

Because it has so many moulins, this part of Greenland is considered by many to have the highest potential for ice cave exploration in the world.

And that explains why the world record for the deepest descent within an ice cave was achieved in this area. The accomplishment was made by French speleologist Janot Lamberton, who descended to a depth of more than 660 feet in a moulin in 1996.

Photo credit: Alessio Romeo—Courtesy of Moncler

That record has never been beaten, though many have tried. A contributing factor in making Lamberton’s record hard to beat is the fact that climate change has made the caves and moulins unstable and dangerous to navigate in the intervening years.

Due to the continued warming of the area, new moulins are forming every year. But the actual amount of melting is often hidden deep underground, according to researchers.

This means that calculations about ice loss based on above-ground data, such as that collected by satellite or even in person on the surface, may present considerable underestimations of the actual amount of ice that has melted.

By climbing into the caves—or flying into them, as was done with Flyability’s Elios—researchers were able to collect valuable data on the actual conditions there so that they could better understand the actual status of the ice sheet and the amount of melting that has occurred.

Here are some of the scientific goals of the expedition, extracted from an official report:

  • Undertake geophysical surveys to improve our understanding of how the melting ice sheet contributes to sea level rise
  • Perform a trip of 93 miles along the dark ice zone with snow bikes transporting a Ground Penetrating Radar instrument to detect cavities and lakes along the moulins area
  • Evaluate the evolution and distribution of the moulins after one year from the last expedition
  • Extract sediment cores and make on-site measurements to determine the significance of microbial life found at the base of the moulins for the carbon budget of the ice sheet

Photo credit: Alessio Romeo—Courtesy of Moncler

But it seems like the expedition wasn’t made solely for the sake of research.

It was also made because this part of Greenland is fascinating and beautiful, and some of the team members wanted to go there for the sheer thrill of it.

At Flyability, scientific discovery and exploration are dear to our hearts. The core focus of our work is on creating indoor inspection solutions to replace the need for people to enter dangerous, confined spaces. But we also want to help expand the boundaries of human knowledge by accessing places that couldn’t otherwise be reached, and the Greenland expedition really showcases that aspect of our work.”

– Adrien Briod, Flyability Co-Founder and CTO

The use of the Elios in this mission is another remarkable example of how drones are being used for good, helping to gather data that literally couldn’t be gathered any other way.

We find it inspiring to see the new ways that drone technology is being used throughout the world, and we know that we’re sure to see more examples of surprising new uses as time goes by.

Know of other amazing missions that drones have supported? Share your story in this thread on the UAV Coach community forum.

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