China’s Latest Drone Expeditions to the Antarctic Are Raising Eyebrows

China has been flaunting its leadership in every drone niche imaginable – from fire fighting to space travel.  And now the world’s dominant drone manufacturer and exporter is surging ahead of its rivals in the exploration of Antarctica – the “South Pole.”  China just completed its 38th aerial mapping expedition of the polar region, ostensibly to explore opportunities for large-scale fishing and tourism.  China may also be surveying the continent for its fossil fuel potential, even though mining is expressly forbidden under the terms of 1998 Madrid Protocol to the 1961 Treaty on Antarctica which declares the entire continent off limits to military bases and commercial exploration.  It’s a growing concern.

Most other nations, including the United States, have refrained from commercial activities thus far.  (Since 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has loaned its small fleet of Puma drones to the US Coast Guard to aid its land and naval surveys). The one exception is Australia, which still claims a 42% territorial right to the continent, including most of its unexplored interior region.  In March, Australia announced plans to spend nearly $1 billion on a new fleet of drones that would conduct aerial surveillance of eastern inland regions, ostensibly for scientific research purposes only.  The announcement, coming on the heels of China’s latest drone expedition, has triggered widespread concern in diplomatic circles that Australia’s move could trigger a drone “arms race” with Russia and several other nations with long-standing territorial claims on Antarctica,

In August, a number of scientific experts – both Chinese and European – participating in an international conference on Antarctica said those fears were “overblown.”  With no human inhabitants, Antarctica is an ideal testing ground for a wide range of scientific research activities relating to biodiversity, animal conservation and climate change.  Currently, some 29 nations – all signatories to the 1961 Treaty – are supporting more than 70 scientific research stations on the continent.  France, for example, has recently sponsored tests in the Wendell Sea separating the continent from the southern tip of Latin America on the effects of melting icebergs and snow on sea levels.

Drones could prove to be a powerful means of extending and enhancing these activities but there may need to be more formal agreement in place to delimit their scope and purpose.  Currently, the only informal prohibition on drone use applies to small recreational drones.  The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, which sponsors site-seeing cruises to the region, prohibits the flying of drones by tourists aboard its touring vessels.  The potential threat to wildlife is also widely acknowledged by environmental groups who worry that the continent’s erratic, gusty winds could easily cause drones to crash or go down in inaccessible locations where they might be lost and then eaten by curious penguins or leopard seals.

Another factor affecting drone use, at least in the short term, is the weather.  The continent’s bitter sub-zero temperatures, especially during the dark winter months, render most commercial drone batteries ineffective.  But next-generation solar-powered drones, which are slowly making their way onto the market, may soon allow drones to fly almost without interruption.  In fact, drones are already flying in much larger numbers in the warmer northern Arctic polar region.  It’s only a matter of time before drone use by major powers in the south becomes widespread.

The 1961 Treaty is up for renewal in 2048, but it’s probably not too early to begin discussing some kind of regulatory regime for the continent well before then.  So far the Biden administration has refrained from getting involved in the diplomatic controversy over Chinese encroachments.  Australia, it appears, has backed away from pursuing its new drone initiative for the time being.  This may be a good time for a number of major nations to go on the record about what drones can and cannot do in a special part of the world whose potential for scientific exploration is boundless.

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