Why can't drones fly in Antarctica?

Why can’t drones fly in Antarctica?

The cold is not the only element that prevents quadcopters from flying in Antarctica.

For photo enthusiasts, the arrival of consumer drones on the market has launched a small revolution. We have become accustomed to seeing sumptuous aerial images of the most exceptional panoramas on the planet. But you might have noticed that even though it’s very photogenic, Antarctica is often missing out on all those jaw-dropping shots. And there are good reasons for that.

The first obstacle you will encounter when using a drone in Antarctica is very obvious: it is the terrible cold which can reach -10°C on the coast. And inland, the mercury can exceed -70°C. Additionally, the winds can easily turn any drone into a icicle conveyor, especially on the coast due to the humidity.

Conditions that do not mix well with quadcopters. To use a machine of this type, you would need to have access to a professional drone capable of flying in very difficult conditions, such as the DJI Matrice 30. But even with a jewel of technology of this type, the conditions would have to be particularly lenient.

An independent zone but still regulated

And yet, it is not the cold that is the main obstacle to the flight of drones in Antarctica, but the regulations. This might come as a surprise, as the area technically does not belong to any country; no State can therefore enforce its legislation there. But that doesn’t mean it’s a frozen Wild West.

To hope to set foot in Antarctica, you have to show your credentials in front of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), the organization that manages transit and operations on site. In particular, it requires that visitors strictly respect the Antarctic Treaty.

It is a text signed in 1959 by several countries including France which regulates relations between states on this continent. In particular, it defines a certain number of obligations in terms of scientific cooperation, logistics, diplomacy, and above all the environment. All individual visitors must also do so, regardless of whether they are arriving from a treaty country or not.

© Derek Oyen – Unsplash

A principle of precaution at the service of a nature reserve

In practice, therefore, IAATO also plays the role of Antarctic environmental watchdog. In particular, it has the power to define certain restrictions on matters that fall under the four subjects mentioned above. And that’s what she decided to do by strictly regulating the flight of drones.

In 2019, the association simply decided to ban the use of drones on site, by lack of hindsight on their potential environmental impact. Remember knowing that the whole continent is also considered a protected nature reserve.

There are situations where the flight could be of scientific interest, or for ship reconnaissance or education, including the making of documentaries, but there are still many unanswered questions vis-à-vis their impact. potential on the environment“, explained the IAATO press release in 2019.

Since then, she has softened her position. Strictly recreational drones remain prohibited, but it sometimes issues authorizations for scientists, navigators and engineers.

But you still have to present a document (Environmental Impact Assessment) in which the operator takes responsibility for the drone and its impact on the ecosystem. The majority of operators therefore do not wish to take this risk and simply ban these from their trips. This is for example the case of Aurora Expeditions, which devotes an entire page of its website to this ban.

Moral of the story: if you are one of the brave ones who will soon venture into Antarctica, you will probably have to leave your drone in its case and bring out your favorite camera!

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