Great follow up to what we posted late last week.
A Drone’s Vantage Point of a Melting Greenland
By Josh Haner
The farther you travel onto the Greenland ice sheet, the colder it becomes.
My boots barely disturbed the ice crust as I stepped out of the helicopter on arrival. This part of Greenland is completely flat, a wrap-around vista of white. A researcher pointed out a line of flags delineating the spot where the ice became dangerous and unpredictable; where I would have to clamp my climbing harness onto a guideline to venture past. I was told that the semi-frozen stream to my right was for drinking, but the one to my left was off limits because it ran too close to the camp’s “outhouse” — an open-air utility bucket. In front of me, an aquamarine river sliced through the ice. It was nearly silent, belying the intensity with which it rushed by as it headed toward rapids framed by ice cliffs.
In this extreme environment, both harsh and stirringly beautiful, The New York Times used a drone to report the assignment, opening a new path for readers to experience our stories. Flying a camera-equipped drone over this terrain resulted from many months of work. The Times joined a consortium of media organizations last year to work with the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership at Virginia Tech, one of the six test sites set up by Congress to advise the Federal Aviation Administration on how Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or drones, flown by commercial users can be integrated into United States airspace.
While we cannot yet fly drones in the United States without an F.A.A. exemption and a licensed pilot at the controls, the largely unpopulated country of Greenland proved to be an excellent, if challenging, first drone assignment.
In Greenland’s frozen air, each battery in the drone lasted only 8 to 10 minutes. I had sketched the scenes I thought I might encounter and planned a few shots, but having never seen the location, I had to think fast when I got there. I wanted to get my initial aerial photos and videos done quickly, then change memory cards, so that if I lost the drone over the ice or in the river, I would still have the initial images. I wanted to take the reader from the meltwater lake and past the researchers as they pulled their floating sensors across the river, then trace the river almost a mile to where it disappears into a moulin, a giant hole in the ice that drains the water through tunnels in the ice sheet out into the ocean.
I had only enough battery life to fly this route once, and because of the wind, I wasn’t sure if the drone would make it all the way back. After filming that clip, the battery warning came on. If the drone lost power and landed somewhere out on the ice, I would not be able to recover it. I held my breath: The battery lasted, and I guided the drone back to camp.
Complicating things, I also had to deal with an active landing zone, because the helicopter was crisscrossing the river to ferry researchers back-and-forth. With a researcher acting as my spotter, we listened for the helicopter’s approach. When we heard it, I had to immediately land the drone, ruining footage and wasting precious battery life.
As the evening light improved, I decided to try to a “Star Wars”-style camera shot, flying up the river as low as I possibly could. This is an angle only a drone can get. During the flight, I was mesmerized as I watched the live video from the camera on a tablet attached to my controller. I thought: This is what birds must feel as they fly up Alpine streams, skimming the surface of the water. That video is featured in an article being published Tuesday on researching how Greenland is melting.
With very limited time and battery left, I repositioned the drone to do a second take. As I was getting ready to start, Larry Smith, the leader of the research team, shouted at me that we needed to leave immediately. We were getting precariously close to the closing time of the airport in Kangerlussuaq, which would levy a hefty overtime bill. I had to rush, and the drone crash-landed when I brought it in a little too.
As I scrambled to gather the broken plastic propellers, I forgot to see if the memory card had fallen out or if the video had safely finished recording. My adrenaline was pumping as I reached the helicopter. I was scared to check the footage when I got back to the hotel because if the clip had been corrupted by the crash, I would be devastated. That night, with the midnight sun outside my window, I couldn’t bring myself to look.
The next day, I boarded an LC-130 aircraft operated by the 109th Airlift Wing of the Air National Guard and buckled into suspended seats made of orange nylon straps. I sat next to Larry Smith as I anxiously loaded the videos from the day before with the laptop balanced between us. I immediately searched for the last clip of the day to see if it survived.
You have to wear earplugs on the LC-130 because there is no insulation from the engines, and it is insanely loud. When Larry and I saw that the clip was intact, we screamed at the top of our lungs and celebrated with backslaps. We watched the clip over and over, marveling at the view from such a surreal vantage point.
Larry said he would bring his own drone next year.