Building drones & monitoring ice in Shageluk

8 April 2022

Fresh Eyes on Ice team members Katie Spellman and Sarah Clement, and Alaska Satellite Facility (ASF) scientists Helena Buurman and Matthew Balazs spent three days in Shageluk at the end of March to build drones and explore how they can be used to monitor ice conditions with students. Innoko River School in Shageluk is one of Fresh Eyes on Ice’s community-based monitoring teams. Before participating in Fresh Eyes on Ice, Joyanne Hamilton, the principal teacher at Innoko River School, monitored ice with her students through the ALISON project in the 1990s. The students at Innoko River School have been monitoring ice thickness on Airport Lake, just outside of town, since December this year. 

During our visit, Helena Buurman (ASF) guided Shageluk’s older students through building their own training drones and demonstrated techniques for drone safety. One of the most important pieces of safety equipment when flying the training drones is a hair tie for people with long hair! Helena used a bust with a blue wig (nicknamed “Marge”) to show what happens when the training drones collide with hair:

Some students arrived at school early the next morning, eager to start flying their drones. The training drones can be finicky and are much harder to fly than real drones, but we’ve found that students (particularly those adept at playing video games!) are generally quick to pick up flying skills. The K-2 students got to practice flying a training drone with Helena's help, too. The students in Shageluk were definitely more comfortable flying drones than Katie and Sarah!

After flight school in the morning, we all headed out to Airport Lake to measure ice thickness for the month of March. Helena and Matthew brought along a Mavic drone to survey part of the lake. Out on the ice, the students noticed large, shiny patches of opaque ice with no snow on top of them. Elder Grandpa Rudy, who joined us on the lake, explained overflow to the students, and we tested the ice thickness of the ice underneath snow versus the thickness of the refrozen overflow. The refrozen overflow ice was almost 20 centimeters thicker than the ice under the snow! Helena and Matthew surveyed as much of Airport Lake as they could on one drone battery so the students could later estimate what percentage of the lake’s surface was refrozen overflow. 

On our last day in Shageluk, Katie and the students looked at their historical ice thickness data to understand how ice thickness has been changing in Shageluk since the 1990s. Matthew pulled up the compiled photos from the drone survey on Airport Lake, and the students practiced their math and estimation skills to determine how much of the lake was covered in refrozen overflow (we think it’s about 42%). 

The final afternoon included a challenge: an obstacle course in the gym that the students had to successfully navigate in two minutes to earn prizes! All eight students rocked the course, though the final bonus challenge of landing the drone on top of the larger-than-life bottle-shaped recycling bin remained elusive for everyone, including Helena and Matthew. While we waited for the drone batteries to recharge for another go at the obstacle course, the students brainstormed all the ways drones could be used to help their community, including monitoring ice conditions. 

In the last hour before our plane came to pick us up, we were able to use the Mavic drone to do some actual monitoring in Shageluk! Joy told us about a “glacier” of overflow that has reappeared on one side of town for the past three or four years. It’s huge, and is growing so much that it’s starting to raise houses off the ground in the winter. It’s turning into a big problem during spring melt, too. Joy helped us get permission from all of the neighborhood residents to use the drone, and three of the high school students took us up to the neighborhood after school. The students, acting as the observers (watching for birds, planes, and other potential hazards while the drone is in the air), helped Helena survey the whole “glacier” with the drone (check out one preliminary image below!). We’ll send the survey data to Joy in Shageluk, so they can use the images to document the problem and secure resources to help fix it. 

The Fresh Eyes on Ice/ASF team had a fabulous few days with the students in Shageluk, and we’re looking forward to seeing them at our Earth Day GLOBE Symposium in Fairbanks in a few weeks!