Grant to aid advances in remote sensing tools for climate change

Fri, 01/31/2014


Cody Howard
School of Engineering

LAWRENCE — A team of researchers from the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS) at the University of Kansas has received a grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation to develop technology that better maps and tracks the conditions within glaciers and at the bottom of fast-flowing ice sheets.

Assistant Professor of Aerospace Engineering Shawn Keshmiri will lead efforts on the nearly $200,000 one-year grant. The project will enable engineers at KU to develop two small, unmanned aerial systems (UASs) that can be equipped with dual low-frequency sounding/imaging radars. CReSIS research focuses on predicting future sea level rise based on the effect of climate change on the polar ice sheets. Key to this effort is creating accurate and detailed maps of the glaciers, from their surface to the bedrock.

“We believe that this partnership with the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation will enable us to expand the use of unmanned aerial systems technology and dramatically improve Arctic observing capabilities," Keshmiri said. "By providing the resources to build small UASs that can be equipped with miniaturized HF/VHF radar sounders, the foundation will enable us to take the first step toward testing distributed sensors in coordinated flight in order to better measure and characterize the impact of climate changes on fast-flowing glaciers."

The research conducted at CReSIS meshes with the mission of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. 

“The Foundation is eager to understand more about climate and polar ice change. We believe the development of new technologies is critical to creating that new knowledge,” said Susan Coliton, vice president of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. “The proposal from Dr. Keshmiri will give us insight by studying those glaciers that are the most difficult to measure, and this work, if successful, could be transformative to the field.”

The KU research aims to solve challenges that arise when using radar to collect data from a fast-flowing glacial surface or from the bottom of a temperate glacier, which are glaciers that remain at melting point from surface to base throughout the year.

“These new vehicles have the potential to decrease operational cost and reduce the environmental impact of remote sensing compared to current methodology,” Keshmiri said. “The support of the foundation will not only enable us to develop the technology necessary to produce a new generation of ice sheet models, it will also enable us to test platforms envisioned to use less fuel and produce fewer emissions in the process."

The unmanned aerial systems will enable researchers to study two particularly challenging aspects of a glacier. At the surface, fast-flowing glaciers are heavily crevassed, extremely rough, and contain debris and water. Throughout the entire depth of temperate ice sheets, water pockets exist. Both conditions scatter radar signals, which mask weak echoes from the ice bed, leading to incomplete or inaccurate imaging from the bedrock.

Because the radar signal is scattered by conditions within a glacier and at the surface, radars must be designed to overcome two types of scatter. This means they must use a narrow antenna beam in intersecting lines along the surface, and they must operate at low frequencies. This can only be accomplished with multiple unmanned aerial systems operating in a synchronized group.

“Support from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation will enable our interdisciplinary teams in radar sensor and unmanned airborne platform development to pursue a higher risk, but potentially transformative approach to polar remote sensing,” said Rick Hale, associate professor of aerospace engineering and associate director of technology at CReSIS. “The potential is truly exciting, and the challenge is grand.”

CReSIS was established by the National Science Foundation in 2005 with the mission of developing new technologies and computer models to measure and predict the response of sea level change to the mass balance of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. Data collected through CReSIS technologies have helped uncover a massive canyon buried under miles of ice in Greenland and provided an updated, more detailed topographic map of Antarctica under its blanket of ice.

About The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation

Launched by Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Paul G. Allen and Jo Lynn Allen in 1988, the Allen family’s philanthropy is dedicated to transforming lives and strengthening communities by fostering innovation, creating knowledge and promoting social progress. Since its inception, the foundation has awarded over $475 million to more than 1,400 nonprofit groups to support and advance their critical charitable endeavors in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. The foundation’s funding programs nurture the arts, engage children in learning, address the needs of vulnerable populations, advance scientific and technological discoveries, and provide economic relief amid the downturn. For more information, click here

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