The camera-equipped drone looks like a smoke detector with wings and legs. It glides on 20-minute missions ranging from 10 feet (3 meters) to 320 feet (97.5 meters) above the ice, and its images can be instantly viewed on a tablet-type computer screen.
The tanker is bound for Nome, a town of 3,500 residents that missed its final pre-winter delivery of fuel by barge when a big storm swept the region last fall. Without the delivery of 1.3 million gallons (4.92 million liters), the city could run short of fuel before a barge delivery becomes possible in late spring.
Researchers were using the 2.5-pound (1.13-kilogram) drone to provide a large picture of the ice in hopes of guiding the tanker as close to shore as possible, said Greg Walker, unmanned aircraft program manager for the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute.