New Collaboration Aims to Answer Critical Questions About Polar Bear Conservation

San Diego Zoo Global scientists and Northrop Grumman Corporation engineers have joined forces to gain a better understanding of the Arctic and the increasing threats to its iconic polar bears.

Employee teams competing in Northrop Grumman’s Wildlife Challenge are developing new approaches to autonomous flight technology, which San Diego Zoo Global scientists intend to use to expand their observation of climate change impacts on polar bear populations and sea ice habitats in far-off locations.

“Hands down, the greatest threat to polar bears in the wild is climate change,” said Megan Owen, Ph.D., associate director of Applied Animal Ecology at San Diego Zoo Global. “Greenhouse gas emissions from human activity are having a dramatic and profound impact on the sea ice habitat that polar bears depend on to survive. While there has been a tremendous effort to study polar bears and changes to their habitat, one of the limiting factors to research is that the Arctic is an extreme environment that poses many—and, historically, insurmountable—challenges to work in, especially when the goal is to non-invasively study animals as they move over large areas.”

This new effort is focusing technology and data integration on wildlife conservation, and for good reason. Collecting data in remote areas of the Arctic is incredibly difficult, given the dynamic terrain and distant latitudes of wild polar bear populations. “I’m a biologist, not an engineer: I know the type of technology we need to answer critical research questions, but we don’t have the technological expertise to build the type of systems we need to operate in the Arctic,” said Nicholas Pilfold, Ph.D., postdoctoral associate in Applied Animal Ecology at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Enter Northrop Grumman’s Wildlife Challenge.

The Wildlife Challenge is a competition for employees to develop a long-endurance autonomous system to help mitigate many of the challenges of operating in the Arctic, with the goal of providing San Diego Zoo Global researchers with new tools to answer critical research questions. Teams from across Northrop Grumman have been developing and testing their design solutions since August, in preparation for the final test flights this week.

“As a global technology leader, we are always looking for ways to advance scientific research and discovery, even beyond the boundaries of our aerospace and defense expertise, and apply our knowledge to help solve other global challenges, such as conservation,” said Charlie Welch, Northrop Grumman Wildlife Challenge technical lead. “We can’t wait to get to work with the research team, to help protect polar bears that are under significant threat for generations to come.”

The scheduled test flights took place at an offsite location, Oct. 27-28. Teams displayed their autonomous system’s endurance, payload capacity and low acoustic signature, and validated their ability to operate a full mission package in an Arctic environment. The Northrop Grumman team who builds an autonomous system that best meets the needs of the San Diego Zoo Global researchers will join them in the Arctic for further research and collaboration.