An Eye in the Sky for Polar Bear Conservation Research

Recent rapid advances in the development of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), sometimes called drones, have opened up incredible opportunities for conservation research. These small, lightweight, and quiet craft can be fitted with a suite of sensors and carried by scientists into remote locations to capture data on endangered wildlife and their habitats.

UAS technology is an increasingly cost-effective method to rapidly collect detailed ecological information from landscapes and animal populations, without disturbing either. This valuable information can, in turn, be used to inform conservation strategies for managing and protecting species of concern.


Team of Northrop Grumman engineers prepare for launch.

Recognizing the power and effectiveness of UAS technology, San Diego Zoo Global has established a new and exciting collaboration with Northrop Grumman Corporation to develop and deploy a cutting-edge UAS, to acquire much-needed information on polar bears and their Arctic habitat. The Arctic is increasingly impacted by climate change, and the associated warming is reducing the extent and volume of Arctic sea ice. Polar bears depend on stable sea ice to support their weight as they range huge distances while hunting. Less sea ice means the bears will have to expend more energy and time crossing unstable terrain, and suffer reduced access to key food resources.

We urgently need more information on how Arctic sea ice dynamics are changing, to address polar bear conservation challenges in a rapidly warming world. UAS technology is a highly promising way to acquire rigorous, high-resolution, real-time data on polar bears and their sea ice habitat. Their portability, flexibility and ability to survey large areas mean that UAS could become a valuable research tool. However, the Arctic is a physically arduous and hostile environment that exacts a huge toll on technical equipment.


Data collected from the UAS will improve our understanding of the Arctic landscape, as well as other habitats around the world.

Conducting research in the extreme conditions and inaccessibility of the Arctic demands reliable equipment that is capable of withstanding constant freezing temperatures and strong polar winds. With these challenges in mind, Northrop Grumman brought the phenomenal power of its aerospace expertise and experience to custom-build a UAS capable of supporting San Diego Zoo Global polar bear research.

Teams of Northrop engineers and programmers recently competed in a “hackathon” to develop UAS optimized to collect detailed landscape data in polar conditions. Working under tight deadlines, the final four teams brought their UAS to a grassland area in San Diego County and demonstrated their designs before a panel of judges from both organizations.

While all designs were impressive, one winning team will now accompany their UAS on a trip to the Arctic with San Diego Zoo Global polar bear scientists for a real-world application of their technology. We are hopeful that this research collaboration will provide valuable information on polar bear ecology, and San Diego Zoo Global is grateful to Northrop Grumman for their generous support of our conservation programs.


James Sheppard, Ph.D., is a senior researcher in Applied Ecology at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.