- Associated Press - Friday, October 2, 2015

FARGO, N.D. (AP) - Scientists from the American Museum of Natural History who have spent five decades studying ecology in the polar bear capital of Canada had help this past summer from an unmanned aircraft team from the University of North Dakota.

A museum researcher and senior scientist for the Hudson Bay Project, Robert Rockwell, told The Associated Press that the team working Churchill, Manitoba was the first to gain permits to develop drone technology in a Canadian national park. It was important not only to advance the study, Rockwell said, but also to assure park managers and indigenous people who have a “don’t touch and don’t disturb philosophy” that it could be done with minimal disturbances.

It’s also safer than conducting foot surveys among the polar bears.

“On top of that you have a limited budget,” Rockwell said. “The idea being able to use a UAV that we basically power with solar energy that can cover amazing amounts of habitat, we can get really good mosaics of what the landscape looks like.”

Churchill is located on the northwest shore of Hudson Bay and is one of the few human settlements where polar bears can be observed in the wild. There no roads leading into the town, only rail.

The group conducted 87 test flights on the 17 days that the weather cooperated in Wapusk National Park. The drones were primarily used to study the overabundant geese in the region, their impact on the tundra landscape and result when their nests are invaded by hungry polar bears.

“This was a grand experiment that worked on all levels,” said Rockwell, 68, who has been working on his project for 47 years.

The UND team of biologists Susan Ellis-Felege, Robert Newman and Chris Felege, graduate student Andrew Barnas, student Sam Hervey and UAS expert Michael Corcoran travelled on planes, trains, automobiles and helicopters to get to the Canadian camp. From there, they often lugged packs that weighed at least 50 pounds through soggy fields.

“It’s similar to North Dakota in that it’s flat and windy and cool,” Hervey said.

The 5½-pound Styrofoam flyer was launched via catapult and generally ranged between 75 and 250 feet, where the aircraft’s belly camera takes phots at one-second intervals that are stitched together to show a picture of the ground. It captured snow geese and their goslings, different types of vegetation, and other bird species like sandhill cranes, tundra swans, bald eagles and herring gulls.

“That’s a pretty harsh environment up there, but outside of a few glitches it performed pretty well on the whole,” Ellis-Felege said.

The researchers placed video cameras near goose and elder duck nests in order to gauge how the wildlife responded to the drones. They found that the animals generally ignored the aircraft, even when it was in close proximity to the launch sites.

“Our presence there with our equipment got their attention, but once we got set up, several of them just sat on their nests while the launch occurred and they were still sitting right there when we landed,” Ellis-Felege said.

And the polar bears? “They would see it and hear it and just kind of go, ok, whatever,” Rockwell said.

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