Svalbard is one of the world’s northernmost inhabited areas.
By human standards, Svalbard is a forbidding destination. Tucked in the middle of the Barents Sea, this Norwegian archipelago is barren, remote and cold. Even in summer, under the glare of 24-hour sunlight, temperatures easily dip below freezing and Arctic winds pummel its shores.
For polar bears, though, it is home. The islands offer refuge in the summer months, when the bears’ other icy habitats start to break apart. In winter and spring, Svalbard becomes a prime seal-hunting ground for the ursine predators.
Ole Liodden knows these bears well. As a photographer, expedition leader and conservationist, he’s been returning to Svalbard each summer for over 12 years to study and document Arctic wildlife. But, he says, polar bears aren’t always easy to spot: “They’re white and they’re walking on the ice or on the snow — it’s really difficult to find them from a distance. They can sleep or hide behind blocks of ice. They’re almost in stealth mode.”
Although the ice looks barren, colonies of algae flourish under its surface, providing food for fish and other aquatic animals. Those animals are in turn a food source for ringed seals, which themselves are preyed on by polar bears. In the face of global climate change, that ice is rapidly disappearing, and these delicate ecosystems are beginning to crumble. Studying the bears now, before their numbers dwindle any further, is essential, Liodden says — not just for the sake of Arctic wildlife, but for human populations as well.
“Climate change is real. It’s happening now,” he adds emphatically. “If you lose the polar bear, it will change the whole Arctic ecosystem. It will also change the world for us humans.”
A Powerful New Technology
In August 2017, Liodden traveled to the northwest coast of Svalbard for five days in an icebreaker, making repeated attempts to find bears. At various times, he ran into high winds, thick fog and rough seas, knocking personal items and equipment loose throughout the ship. But even in these rough conditions, his experience spotting the bears let him pinpoint the animals in areas where they would otherwise be impossible to see, and then test powerful new imaging technology on them.
Liodden had partnered with tech company Intel to test the feasibility of tracking the bears using commercial aerial drones. Along with a team of pilots and support crew, he set out to sea with an Intel Falcon 8+ drone, a machine designed to battle extreme conditions for commercial use. With its high-resolution camera and an infrared sensor, Intel intended to use it for inspecting industrial infrastructure, aerial mapping and image capture. On this trip, though, Liodden used it to snap infrared photos of the bears in their natural environment.
“From where we were, there was this white speck half a kilometer away on a white snow field,” says Jeffrey Lo, a drone pilot on the Intel team. “In infrared, though, it popped out. It was a clear polar bear shape.” Even bears swimming in open water, he adds, appeared distinct in the drone’s camera — a remarkable finding since their skin temperature hovered only one degree warmer than the frigid ocean.
The potential to monitor bears with this tool, Liodden reasoned, might open up new possibilities for research. Future teams could track the animals without the expense and logistical problems of a helicopter, such as flying into remote areas lacking humans or infrastructure to refuel. With only an estimated 25,000 bears across the entire Arctic — an area that spans millions of square miles — finding a single animal requires that aerial view.
Studying the bears now, before their numbers dwindle any further, is essential — not just for the sake of Arctic wildlife, but for human populations as well.
Liodden hopes commercial drone technologies like Intel’s could help replace some of the need for helicopters, making Arctic research less invasive and safer to conduct. As computing and battery power improve, drones may become powerful tools for crews working in extreme conditions, like wilderness search and rescue or oil and gas inspection. They could be useful tools for scientists, as well — but deploying them this far north would push the technology to its limits in a vastly unforgiving place.
Flying a Fail-Safe System
GPS signals, which are used to keep a drone in a fixed location, are weak toward the poles, where few of the positioning satellites orbit. Compass readings, too, can fluctuate wildly in the North, making directional data unreliable. In addition to these technical issues, there are major logistical ones: To locate bears on sea ice, a drone would have to be flown off the deck of a steel ship. And large amounts of steel can skew the compass. But, says drone pilot Lo, “one of the key features of our drone is that it’s able to detect those changes and compensate.”
Launching in the open ocean near Svalbard also exposes the drone to extreme winds and cold, so redundant systems are key. For safety and reliability, the Intel Falcon 8+ drone is built with multiple power sources, communication links and inertial measurement sensors, which help keep it correctly oriented. If there’s a failure in any of those systems — or any of its eight motors and propellers — its onboard computer instantly compensates for the issue.
With these safeguards in place, the Falcon 8+ drone unobtrusively allowed the team to get close to the animals, capturing images of the bears from angles previously unimaginable to Liodden. As a photographer, he says, that’s exciting enough: After all, photos of the bears can both document and raise awareness for their plight in the face of climate change. For scientists who are studying the effects of climate on the animals, the ability to record these animals remotely could be invaluable. According to Lo, it may even help researchers in other disciplines — from volcanology to disaster relief — that require operating in extreme conditions.
Liodden echoes this sentiment wholeheartedly. “Drones are able to go where man can’t. They can see what I can’t see,” he says. “They can have a huge impact on future scientific work. If they work on polar bears, they can work for most other species. This is just the beginning.”
The news and editorial staffs of The New York Times had no role in this post’s preparation.