Employee Innovation: Wildlife Challenge
Scientists studying polar bears and the Arctic have an ongoing problem. Because of the region’s extreme weather and limits to existing technology, they are unable to collect the type of localized data needed to understand how climate change impacts this iconic species and its environment.
In November 2016, Northrop Grumman engineers and San Diego Zoo Global (SDZG) scientists traveled to Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, at the edge of the Arctic tundra, to validate autonomous flight technology they hope will help answer critical research questions.
The project started in August with the launch of the Wildlife Challenge. Four employee teams, three from California (San Diego, Space Park/El Segundo and Palmdale) and one from Melbourne/St. Augustine, Florida, competed to develop unmanned aerial systems to help researchers study the movement of pack ice glaciers and how polar bears use the ice.
Following successful test flights in San Diego County, the Melbourne team (Polar Eye), packed up their ruggedized plane, spare parts and head-to-toe thermal clothing to join San Diego Zoo colleagues at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre along the Hudson Bay coastline. The 11-person team (seven from Northrop Grumman) spent nearly a week on the ground to prove their design could fly and collect data in some of the toughest conditions on the planet.
The team flew missions using an all-electric, fixed-wing aircraft with a 14-foot wingspan and a custom fuselage to accommodate several optical sensors. The plane also had multi-terrain landing gear and environmental packaging. By the last flight, the team had doubled operational time and provided imagery to the scientists, none of which was an easy feat.
Polar Eye attributes their success to individual skill sets, team bonding and close collaboration with the scientists. It is this type of cross-disciplinary knowledge and experience that will help employees at Northrop Grumman design future systems and, ideally, help scientists preserve polar bears and their special habitat. The project started in August with the launch of the Wildlife Challenge, the latest installment in the Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems series of Innovation.