Drones for Good: Watch This Tiny Robot Explore the Inside of a Giant Glacier

The machine’s unique design could help with search and rescue in dangerous conditions.
Jan 23, 2016·
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

Drones are already proving useful to all sorts of science and conservation work, from fighting illegal fishing and logging to tracking endangered sea lions and sampling the snot of whales at sea.

This video of a drone traveling into the heart of a mountain glacier suggests that the technology could also become useful for scientists to study ice and climate, especially as warming temperatures continue to destabilize glaciers and ice sheets.

A Swiss robotics firm partnered with an alpine search and rescue team to fly the small drone in and out of one of the world’s most extreme environments: a glacier nearly 11,500 feet above sea level on the Matterhorn mountain near Zermatt, Switzerland.

The results are remarkable, as you can see in this video the drone’s inventors recently posted to YouTube.

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The little flier, designed to rotate freely inside a protective mesh enclosure, enters a narrow crevasse in the ice that would be extremely dangerous for a person to explore and bounces off the ice without crashing—and just as important, it comes back out again.

All the while it’s sending back remarkably clear images of the glacier’s interior, including views of its many layers that few have ever seen.

This drone, the “Gimball” by Flyability, is specifically intended for use in extremely tight spaces, “whether it’s in a tank, in a chimney, a cluttered house or a collapsed building,” according to the firm’s materials.

Or even in a crevasse of a glacier in the Swiss Alps, where it looks like the Gimball may help rescuers find accident victims while reducing some of the inherent risks of the job.

The robot won a $1 million prize at the 2015 “Drones for Good Award” competition sponsored by the United Arab Emirates.