Glacier through drone's eye

Researchers use new technology to gather data in rugged, inaccessible Himalayan terrain

By Alok Gupta
Published: Thursday 31 July 2014

Researchers release the drone to take photographs of the Lirung glacier in Kathmandu

Drones are normally associated with war and surveillance, thanks to the extensive use of the technology by the US in its fight against terrorism. But a team of scientists in Kathmandu has for the first time used the technology to study an inaccessible Himalayan glacier.

The team from a Nepal-based research institute, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), used a small drone to successfully study the 3.5 km-long Lirung glacier in Kathmandu.

The ICIMOD team, along with researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands and ETH Switzerland, used the drone to understand how the glacier behaves during the monsoon month of May and the post-monsoon month of October. Their research paper appeared in the July issue of the Remote Sensing of Environment journal.

“We all know that human expedition to study inaccessible glaciers is not possible,” says ArunBhaktaShrestha, regional programme manager at ICIMOD. Normally, scientists study glaciers with the help of satellite images, which are low-resolution and not always accurate in capturing the topography. This prompted the team to experiment with drones that can fly closer to the glacier. Shrestha says drones are essential to understand what is happening on the ground and to properly study the impacts of climate change.

How it works

The scientists decided to attach a point-and-shoot camera to a drone called Swinglet for mapping the glacier. Swinglet was then made to fly over the glacier at a speed of 36km/hr. The drone, small enough to fit in a suitcase, undertook 10 flights of around 30 minutes each between May and October 2013 and returned with hundreds of high-resolution photographs.


Fitted with the camera and a GPS (global positioning system), Swinglet was programmed to fly certain patterns over the glacier. An onboard software told the camera to take photographs at predetermined points. The scientists say using drones for clicking high-quality pictures was not easy. One of the biggest challenges was to ensure the drone is stable for clicks. All the 10 flights of the drone were made in the morning to avoid high wind.

What it found

The observations show that the glacier is decaying. The researchers found the glacier is not only losing mass, but that melting is more than expected earlier, especially around the small lakes formed on the top of the ice and ice cliffs within the glacier. “The time period of the study was crucial to understand the behaviour of the glacier during monsoon and post monsoon. The comparison of data over the two periods of time was related to height difference of ice cliffs and also flow velocity of glacier,” Shrestha told Down To Earth.

Emphasising on the importance of such studies, the team says better knowledge of individual glaciers is important in the Himalayas where glacier behaviour varies significantly from valley to valley and range to range. Even the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that glacier characteristics in this region “are still only poorly known”. “We suggest that future research should focus on the interaction between supra-glacial ponds, ice cliffs and englacial hydrology to further understand the dynamics of debris-covered glaciers,” say the researchers in the paper.

It is safe to say that the research is one of the most comprehensive studies ever done on a Himalayan glacier. And for the insights, the team can thank a piece of technology that appears as sturdy as cardboard and fits in a suitcase.

With inputs from Anushka Kaushik

Growing popular by the day
Drones STARTED making headlines during America's war on terror. They were used on a large scale to track down and strike terrorist bases. But even before the use of drones for military purposes, it was used for scientific research. In America, drones have been used for taking weather reading and collecting atmospheric data since 1998.

These unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are used to perform functions that would otherwise be dangerous or unsuitable for humans. They can be either controlled by on ground pilots or follow a pre-programmed mission or other dynamic automation systems.

The growing popularity of drones has prompted the US to pass a law to regularise them before they overcrowd the skies. The Congress on February 12, 2012, asked its Federal Aviation Administration to prepare a safe integration policy to put drones in the national airspace system by September, 2015.


One technology, many uses
Monitor wildlife population

In 2012, a drone was used in the Arctic to survey steller sea lions and observe their diet

Check poaching

World Wildlife Fund used drones in 2012 to monitor illicit trade in Africa by tracking poachers

Remote sensing of landslides

A drone in 2012 took images of the Super-Sauze landslide in France


Drones are used for thermography applications such as inspecting pipelines and wind stations

Archaeological survey

In Peru, archaeologists will use drones to survey prospective historical sites

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.