Aarhus Universitets segl

Adapting open-source drone autopilots for real-time iceberg observations

New publication by Daniel Frazier Carlson and Søren Rysgaard

Fig. 1. The melt water plume from this grounded iceberg is evident on the surface of the ocean as a calm, glassy region. It is most visible to the right of the iceberg.


Drone autopilots are naturally suited for real-time iceberg tracking as they measure position and orientation (pitch, roll, and heading) and they transmit these data to a ground station. We powered an ArduPilot Mega (APM) 2.6 with a 5V 11 Ah lithium ion battery (a smartphone power bank), placed the APM and battery in a waterproof box, and tossed the box and its contents by hand onto an 80 m-long iceberg from an 8 m boat. The data stream could be viewed on a laptop, which greatly enhanced safety while collecting conductivity/temperature/depth (CTD) profiles from the small boat in the iceberg's vicinity. The 10 second position data allowed us to compute the distance of each CTD profile to the iceberg, which is necessary to determine if a given CTD profile was collected within the iceberg's meltwater plume. The APM position data greatly reduced position uncertainty when compared to 5 min position data obtained from a Spot Trace unit. The APM functioned for over 10 hr without depleting the battery. We describe the specific hardware used and the software settings necessary to use the APM as a real-time iceberg tracker. Furthermore, the methods described here apply to all Ardupilot-compatible autopilots. Given the low cost ($90) and ease of use, drone autopilots like the APM should be included as another tool for studying iceberg motion and for enhancing safety of marine operations.

MethodsX, 06.09.2018. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mex.2018.09.003