Homemade Drones, Peruvian Glaciers


In 2006, after Oliver Wigmore finished college in New Zealand, the avid skier says he spent the subsequent four years shredding mountaintops from the Rockies all the way to Argentina. He’d visit American ski resorts from Lake Tahoe to Whistler and Banff, and when the ski season was over, he’d head for the Andean slopes of South America. It was the austral winters in the highlands of Peru, he says, where he felt most at home.

Today, Wigmore is a graduate student at Ohio State studying how the mountains he fell in love with in South America are changing. Using satellite imagery and soil moisture tests, Wigmore is trying to understand how quickly high-altitude Andean glaciers are receding, and what effects this wavering water supply will have on millions of people who live downstream.

He’s also built homemade drones to help map those glaciers, which is what he was doing late last year at the Cuchillacocha glacier in Peru.

Why rely on a homemade drone, especially with drone prices dropping? The glaciers in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca mountain range, the world’s largest tropical glacier mass, have receded to a point so high that most commercial drones, in Wigmore’s experience, can’t withstand the altitudes.

“Accidents happen. Things crash,” Wigmore says with a laugh. In early tests, off-the-shelf drones like the DJI Phantom, he says, weren’t holding up at 15,000 feet, which is where he was imaging glacial retreat.

That’s why he opted to build himself a drone that can withstand higher winds and steeper elevations, assembled, with the help of online forums, from a carbon fibre frame and a piloting system made by 3D Robotics. Wigmore’s drone design is modular and easy to disassemble. Should an accident happen, he can swap in replacement parts while in the field — something that comes in handy when you’re miles from a Radioshack. (The electronics chain is still up and running in Peru.)

Wigmore says the unmanned aerial vehicles, as he calls them, help him to do “centimeter-level math about glaciers,” something that scientists can’t get from satellite imagery. That kind of resolution is helping to improve understanding of how much water the glacier is holding — and how much it’s losing.

Peru’s Llaca glacier, Wigmore and OSU glaciologist Bryan Mark have found, sees almost a meter of thinning a year, with a maximum of 18 meters of loss in some locations. This seems to be a trend that’s not reversing anytime soon, which could complicate down-mountain drinking water supplies, hydroelectric dams, and agriculture that depend on the the annual replenishing of these glacial water storage systems.

“As you move into a future where there’s less glaciated mass,” Wigmore says, “there’ll be less water available to downstream users.”

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect the proximity of available Radioshacks to the Andean field study site in Peru.