The drone that sees through the snow

The drone that sees through the snow

May 28, 2018
Head of Communication

The radar onboard the drone Kraken can measure snow depth, image snow layers and see objects under the snow. Earlier in the spring, Norut demonstrated how drones can contribute to emergency preparedness involving avalanches.

The drone Kraken was in the air over Andøya on 17 April when Andøya Space Centre, the Norwegian Public Roads Administration and research environments met to discuss new opportunities involving drones.

Seeing through the snow

Research Scientist Markus Eckerstorfer and pilot André Kjelstrup from Norut demonstrated Kraken, a multirotor drone with a one and a half metre diameter that has the capacity to carry ground penetrating radar.

This is radar that is capable of estimating snow depth and imaging snow layers. The radar can also find objects buried in the snow, such as vehicles or people buried by an avalanche. The radar has been built from scratch in a joint project involving Norut and UiT The Arctic University of Norway.

Snow layers and depth

The possibility of “reading” the snow provides useful knowledge when conducting snow surveys to access avalanche danger. Allowing a drone to collect data on snow stratigraphy and depth from an area with potential avalanche risk will provide useful knowledge quickly and avoid exposing people to danger.

When the drone lands, the data is downloaded onto a computer at the scene, enabling the scientists to get an overview of the amount of snow any weak layers of snow in the relevant area.

“The development of this technology is still in an early phase,” says Research Scientist Markus Eckerstorfer from Norut.

“We need to fly more and gather experience about the reliability and usefulness of the information we get when we use drones with ground penetrating radar. We compare the data with traditional measurements on the ground, such as digging snow profiles where we have performed radar measurements,” he says.

Works in wet snow too

The scientists and pilots who participated in the demonstration in April have now written a report outlining their experiences. Spring had long since started when the demo took place on the island of Andøya in mid-April, but the scientists discovered that the radar could also image the layers of wet snow.

“The radar could also find a person buried under 1.5 metres of wet snow,” says Eckerstorfer.

The report summarizing the experiences using the drone-borne UWB radar system for snow surveying contains technical specifications as well as findings from the operation in Andøya. The report also discusses the capabilities and limitations of the radar system and lists the steps required before the system can become operational.

Click here to read the full report: UAV-borne UWB radar for snowpack surveys

Road authority’s avalanche challenges

Every winter the Norwegian Public Roads Administration experiences challenges related to the danger of avalanches on major roads. When is the risk of avalanches so great that roads should be closed? When is it advisable to trigger a controlled avalanche? The latter is done using a helicopter and Daisybell, a large bell that creates shock waves to trigger a controlled avalanche.

The avalanche experts from the Norwegian Public Roads Administration must undertake assessments that have societal costs and, in the worst-case scenario, make involve human lives. These experts spent considerable time in the field throughout the winter season monitoring known avalanche areas, studying meteorological data and digging countless snow profiles. The more relevant information they have available for decision-making the better.

The goal of the research activity is to develop the drone-borne ground penetrating radar system into an operational tool for enhanced avalanche monitoring along our roads.