To maintain public interest in the original Australasian expedition south — and keep funds flowing — Douglas Mawson looked to Scott of the Antarctic’s motorised sledges for supporting work on the ice. After reviewing the designs of the vehicles in 1911 he regretfully concluded they would not do. Instead, Mawson thought flight might be a better money-spinner. It was a shrewd move. Only ten years before, the Wright Brothers had famously made the first powered flight; the technology had advanced swiftly since then, and with it public excitement about the possibilities of air travel. Sadly it was not to be. During a test flight on the morning of a public display over Adelaide racecourse — with the South Australian Governor scheduled to be first in the air — the Vickers plane crashed, apparently not helped by the pilot having ‘been very late at the Naval and Military Club the night before’. Disgraced, the airman was sent home, the wings stripped off the plane, and the engine and body were salvaged for work in Antarctica as an ‘air tractor’.
In a tribute to this early attempt to fly in the south — though without the alcohol — we have bought a senseFly Ebee drone for mapping the subantarctic islands and Commonwealth Bay. These remarkable devices are surprising light. Instead of the tonnes of metal and canvas used a century ago, the Ebee and associated paraphernalia weighs a mere eight kilograms; so light it can actually be taken on an international flight as carry-on. The electric motor means any survey is essentially silent to those on the ground. And with flying times of 40 minutes on one battery charge, we can cover over a square kilometre from a mere 90 metres above the surface, mapping at a resolution of just a few centimetres. Instead of taking days to weeks to painstakingly cover large areas, we hope to map similar areas in hours. And the beauty of the new technology is we will be able to generate 3D maps and movies, allowing others to fly virtually through the landscape shortly after the flight has ended. It should be a fabulous way of bringing Antarctica to the world.
This week we took delivery of our Ebee and over two days of training, Ultimate Positioning took us through the system. Prophetically, both days were marked by high winds — gusting up to 13 metres per second — which was great training for Commonwealth Bay which carries the reassuring moniker of being ‘the windiest place in the world’. Because the drone flight plan is set before takeoff, the Ebee is remarkably easy to fly. The key thing is to stay poised over the control panel to abort the flight if a hazard suddenly turns up (helicopters, small children, penguins and other such perils). Fortunately nothing came our way during the two days so we could almost sit back and enjoy the flight. And because the drone is constantly checking wind speed and direction in flight, it makes the decision on where to approach from for the safest landing. Wow! The Ebee should be a great addition to the team.