As a Russian tanker plowed through the frozen Bering Sea to deliver fuel to Nome, Alaska, earlier this month, it had an unlikely helper: a small drone that hovered overhead, sending images of the sea ice to researchers onshore who were plotting the vessel's path and planning oil spill contingencies.
Drone technology, which revolutionized the way the U.S. military spies and fights, is now opening vast new opportunities for environmental researchers and the energy industry. And the Arctic -- with its brutal temperatures and vast, unpopulated spaces making manned flight difficult and dangerous -- is ground zero for those efforts.
Greg Walker, the man behind the controls of the drone in Nome and manager of the University of Alaska's Unmanned Aircraft Program, has been at the center of many of the Arctic missions. It is something of a miracle he still has all his fingers.
"You learn pretty quickly how to keep your hands warm," he said during a phone interview last week.
Walker has been working on unmanned systems since graduate school in the late 1980s and has used drones to help oil companies monitor wildlife near exploration sites and pipelines for oil leaks. He is currently using drones to help resolve a long-standing dispute between Alaska fishermen and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration over catch limits.
And he is not the only one using drones for energy and environmental efforts.
Energy companies have been testing small, unmanned aircraft as potential pipeline and drilling rig monitors. The Interior Department has more than 40 unmanned aerial systems that it uses to monitor wildlife and fires. And NASA scientists have sent retired Air Force drones to collect atmospheric data on high-altitude, cross-ocean missions that would be too long and dangerous for human pilots.
In many cases, the systems are safer and cheaper than manned aircraft. In others, they are able to do things that were simply impossible before.
"The phrase that the military uses is that UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] are for the 'dull, dirty and dangerous' jobs," said Gretchen West, executive vice president of the industry group Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. "Ultimately, we see the civil market being larger even than the defense market."
But civilian use of drones has been tempered so far by provisional Federal Aviation Administration rules that allow only civil entities like government agencies or universities to fly small systems within line of sight -- and only with specific approval.
Broader use could pose major safety problems, and FAA has grappled for years with how to allow more flights while protecting other aircraft and people on the ground.
Now, the agency is preparing a proposed rule to release this spring on small unmanned systems, which many observers say is a first step toward transitioning the powerful technology to civilian use.
Drilling down on energy applications
After the government, no one is as interested in unmanned systems as the energy industry, drone manufacturers say.
Many of the major energy companies -- including BP PLC, Royal Dutch Shell PLC and ConocoPhillips Co. -- have been eyeing the technology for everything from pipeline surveillance to disaster response.
Walker, who has worked with companies to test the systems for monitoring pipelines, said current technology would allow flights over hundreds of miles of infrastructure to look for erosion or leaks.
"I could sit here in Fairbanks, which is about in the middle of the 800-mile Alaskan pipeline and fly south to Valdez or north to Prudhoe Bay on an almost daily basis looking for hazards," he said. "The planes that would do that today weigh about 40 pounds, are gas-powered and fly for about 20 hours at a time."
Companies currently do such surveys with manned helicopters that average about $300 an hour to operate. Making the transition to unmanned systems could bring major savings and a lower carbon footprint.
Then, there are the places drones can go where humans cannot.
In November 2011, Walker aided a BP test at an oil field in Prudhoe Bay where the company runs a basic crude processing operation that burns off extra gas. The pilot flames are about 3 to 5 feet tall, he said, but when the gas flares, the flames can jump as high as 300 feet in a matter of seconds.
Every few years, the company shuts down the operation for maintenance, but because the flaring area is so dangerous, it cannot send people or aircraft in ahead of time to find out what parts of the infrastructure need repairs.
"They can't go in there to look at the flares until they shut them down, so they don't know what parts to order," Walker said. "Do you order everything in advance and then show up and not need it? Or do you wait to get there to order what you need and then have to express [ship] it all?"
Using BP-owned Aeryon Scouts, which weigh 2.5 pounds and look like smoke detectors with helicopter blades, Walker was able to take pictures of the flares while they were burning -- something he said the company's workers had never seen before.
Unmanned aerial vehicles could also be critical technology for emergency situations. Last year, the Air Force flew one of its larger drones over Japan's radiation-spewing Fukushima Daiichi plant to collect vital imagery, and there are reports of unmanned systems being used to survey the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico after the 2010 explosion that killed 11 crew members and triggered a massive oil spill.
Researchers are also considering mounting sensors on unmanned systems that could detect oil spills or other chemical releases. A hydrocarbon sniffer mounted on a drone could fly over beaches or pipelines to look for volatile organic compounds before any sheen appears in the water or seeps up to the surface.
"I could see unmanned systems being a part of a set of emergency response equipment that everyone has," said Steve Gitlin, a spokesman for Aerovironment, which supplies small, portable systems to the military. "They could be useful at oil refineries, chemical plants, nuclear plants, electricity plants, bridges, dams, roadways, pipelines -- it really is an extensive list of options."
Spying on sea lions
The energy industry and other groups also are relying on drones to keep an eye on wildlife.
In an early energy industry-drone experiment in 2008, Walker teamed up with Shell to test whether unmanned aerial systems could help monitor wildlife in offshore areas where the company planned to work. Part of Shell's permit requires the company to halt its seismic surveys if whales or other protected wildlife are nearby, and Shell wanted to figure out the best way to watch for the animals.
"This is something that's traditionally done by putting marine mammal observers up into the sky with planes," said Mitch Winkler, Shell's Houston-based Arctic technology program manager. "What we see as the opportunity here with unmanned aircraft is moving these marine mammal observers from the sky and putting them behind work stations."
Operating from a research vessel in the Beaufort Sea, the team used Scan Eagles, systems that weigh about 40 pounds and have been employed by the U.S. Navy. Both Walker's team and Shell said they were pleased with the project, although unrelated permitting issues ultimately prompted Shell to put the work on hold.
Federal agencies are also discovering the benefits of using the systems to monitor wildlife. In 2009, scientists with NOAA used unmanned systems to survey ice seals in areas of the Bering Sea that are difficult to reach with piloted planes.
There, the drones' stealth proved to be a plus. Some flights were so quiet they brought back pictures of seals at rest, said Robyn Angliss, deputy director of NOAA's National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle. That lets scientists take better counts and leaves sensitive species undisturbed.
"We don't have a reliable estimate of ice seals right now, so being able to do this is pretty important," Angliss said.
Now, Walker is being tapped to put his drones to use in resolving a long-standing dispute between NOAA and Alaskan fishermen over fishing restrictions related to the endangered Steller sea lion. NOAA has placed catch limits on fish in the species' food chain near Alaska's Aleutian Islands. But the fishermen argue the species' declining numbers have nothing to do with food shortages.
Both sides hope Walker can collect better data on the issue. Population counts are currently taken using manned aircraft that fly to a handful of locations where sea lions have been known to congregate in the past. But bad weather can limit flights and render photos useless, and the method does not account for animal movements.
Working with NOAA scientists this summer, Walker will fly his systems below cloud cover along broad swaths of the coastline, counting animals and looking for clues about what is affecting their health.
A gleam in a scientist's eye
After dreaming about unmanned aircraft for a decade, NASA atmospheric physicist Paul Newman got his first peek at an Air Force Global Hawk in 1999 during a visit with other scientists to Edwards Air Force Base in California.
"Boy, everybody just got a gleam in their eye," he recalled of that moment on the runway.
For scientists, drones hold the promise of massive amounts of data collected over long stretches of time and from difficult-to-reach places. The early version that Newman saw could carry more than 1,000 pounds of equipment, fly nearly twice as high as a commercial plane, and run for 24 hours straight, he said.
Compare that with the U2 spy plane that the Global Hawk is designed to replace. NASA scientists use the civilian version, the ER2, but cannot fly it more than eight hours at a time because of pilot restrictions.
"That leaves all sorts of things out of reach," Newman said. "If you're trying to look at ozone depletion in the Arctic, you have to be able to fly a long ways or else locate yourself very close to where it is."
Newman and other scientists pined for the plane for years, but there simply wasn't enough money in the budget to buy a multimillion-dollar system that no one had even tested for scientific use. Then, they got lucky. The Air Force was looking to retire its beta version of the Global Hawk, and NASA convinced the service to give it two old ones.
In 2010, Newman spearheaded the agency's first mission with the drones, measuring greenhouse gases, aerosols, ozone-depleting substances and other elements of air quality in the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere on a 24-hour flight that spanned almost 9,000 miles of the Pacific Ocean.
The test was a scientific and technological success, and NASA's two Global Hawks, as well as a Predator system it bought new, are now in high demand from scientists.
"There'd be an awful lot of science you could do if you had more planes," Newman said.
The agency has just embarked on a five-year mission using the Global Hawks to study how water vapor -- a huge factor in the earth's climate -- acts in the earth's troposphere. Since that section of the atmosphere can be extremely cold and dangerous for pilots to fly through, drones are especially useful.
NASA is also working with NOAA to fly the drones over the Atlantic Ocean during the next few hurricane seasons to study storm intensification. The drones will allow scientists to track hurricanes for longer than manned aircraft could, flying over the entirety of the storm multiple times.
The way forward
Even with the upcoming FAA rule expected to loosen restrictions slightly, experts do not expect drones to make their way into wide use in the civilian sector right away.
The vast majority of drones in the United States today are designed with the military in mind, leaving them with a hefty price tag. Hand-launched systems -- which include multiple planes and a control set -- often run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the Air Force is paying an average of $218 million per plane as it builds out its fleet of Global Hawks.
Drone makers also face export restrictions since many systems are subject to strict regulations governing arms exports. And liability concerns loom large for the commercial sector.
"Right now, 90 percent or more of the market is military," said Steve Zaloga, who writes an annual 10-year forecast of the drone market for the consulting firm the Teal Group. "There's obviously a sense that there's a potential market out there, but all these barriers make it very difficult to make any hard and fast predictions about when it's going to open up."
Companies and government agencies actively testing drones say they would be ready to put the systems they already own into broader operation quickly if the rules change. But they are going to watch how other issues shake out over the next few years before making steeper investments.
"We're just at the beginning," said Michael Hutt, who oversees the Interior Department's drones at the U.S. Geological Survey. "It feels a lot like when we were just introducing GPS, and then all of a sudden, GPS became commonplace. Once this technology gets out there, it's going to just explode."