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GNSS Hotspots

Tree-planting and fast-food-delivering drones, laser mapping the landscape, and tough testing for Galileo

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1. Mangrove Tree-Planting Drones
Myanmar (Southeast Asia)

√ For about five years now, a group of villagers in the delta of the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar (also known as Burma) has painstakingly planted 2.7 million mangrove trees with the hopes of beginning to restore an ecosystem that has been disappearing for decades. But this work is rather laborious, and the local nonprofit guiding the work wants to cover a much larger area — so they’re turning drones to help with their large-scale tree-planting project.

The drones, from the startup BioCarbon Engineering, can plant as many as 100,000 trees in a single day, leaving the local community to focus on taking care of the young trees that have already started to grow, according to the company, which has offices in Oxford, U.K., Sydney, Australia and Dublin, Ireland. In September, the company will begin a drone-planting program in the area along with Worldview International Foundation, the nonprofit guiding local tree-planting projects. To date, the organization has worked with villagers to plant an area of 750 hectares, about twice the size of Central Park. The drones will help cover another 250 hectares with 1 million additional trees. Ultimately, the nonprofit hopes to use drones to help plant 1 billion trees in an even larger area.

In the past villages have spent years replanting mangroves along the Irrawaddy River. With drones, their work will now go much faster.

2. Laser-Mapping Landscape Changes
Gargoyle Ridge in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica

√ With the help of LiDAR, researchers led by Portland State University (PSU) have publicly released high-resolution maps of Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys, a unique desert region. The high-resolution maps cover 3,564 square kilometers of the McMurdo Dry Valleys and allow researchers to compare present-day conditions with the last surveys conducted more than a decade ago.

The research project led by PSU, and funded by the United States National Science Foundation (NSF), mapped the area using LiDAR, a remote-sensing method that uses laser beam pulses to measure the distance from the detector to the Earth’s surface. The data, collected by aerial survey missions flown in the Southern Hemisphere summer of 2014-2015, provides detailed imagery of the perpetually ice-free region, where changes, such as rapid erosion along some streams, have been observed in recent years.

The LIDAR maps are publicly available on two NSF-funded facilities: Open Topography, and the Polar Geospatial Center.

The McMurdo Dry Valleys are interesting to a wide range of scientists from biologists to geologists to glaciologists. The valleys are, for example, one of the few places on the massive continent—which is the size of the U.S. and Mexico combined—where bedrock is exposed, allowing geologists to reconstruct the continent’s geological history.

The region also is home to one of NSF’s Long Term Ecological Research sites, which support studies of its unusual habitat, dominated by microbial life, both in the soil and in unique ecosystems under at least one of its glaciers and in several of its highly salty lakes.

Evidence of past glacial advance and retreat is also more easily observed in the Dry Valleys, which provides window into the past behavior of the vast Antarctic ice sheets, the activity of which can influence global sea levels.

3. Fries with Your Drone Delivery?
Reykjavik, Iceland

Impatient Icelanders are getting help from Flytrex, an Israeli startup, that just started delivering small orders like takeout food by drone in a partnership with Aha, Iceland’s largest instant delivery platform. The drones, technically hexacopters, were approved by the Icelandic Transport Authority to pick up orders from restaurants and stores on one side of Reykjavik, where Aha has its offices, and fly them to a drop-off point in the suburb of Grafarvogur.

While Flytrex and Aha don’t offer direct store-to-home-delivery, the companies said that even on a trial basis the service would slash waiting times in a city whose bay delivery trucks must skirt to reach their destinations. A drone cuts delivery times by flying across the water to a truck that will complete the delivery.

Flytrex doesn’t make drones but develops autonomous, drone-based delivery systems. The drones can carry packages weighing up to three kilograms, about the size of a mailbox, so they can only handle smaller orders or takeout food.

The single drone now in use can make between 20 and 60 flights day, according to Flytrex, which has developed hardware that is installed on the drone and links it to a cellular network via a SIM card that enables a controller to locate, monitor its speed, altitude and other parameters in real time.

4. Tough Testing for Galileo
Noordwijk, the Netherlands

√ Each Galileo satellite must go through a rigorous test campaign to assure its readiness for the violence of launch, airlessness and temperature extremes of Earth orbit. Each one is dispatched to a unique location in Europe to ensure its readiness prior to launch: a 3,000-square meter cleanroom complex nestled in sandy dunes along the Dutch coast, filled with test equipment to simulate all aspects of spaceflight.

The test centre in Noordwijk – Europe’s largest satellite test site – is part of ESA’s main technical center, but it is maintained and operated on a commercial basis on behalf of the Agency by a private company created for the purpose: European Test Services (ETS) B.V.

ETS has been responsible for supporting many historic test campaigns – including space-certifying Europe’s 20-metric-ton ATV space truck and Envisat, the world’s largest civilian Earth-observing mission. But in terms of scale alone, its work with Galileo is the company’s greatest challenge.

ETS is about to complete its contracts with OHB System AG, covering the environmental test of 22 “Full Operational Capability” Galileo satellites, preceded by the testing of the very first of the first-generation “In-Orbit Validation” Galileo satellites on a previous, separate contract.

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