Measuring sea ice thickness with long-range UAS (PhD)

Antarctic supervisor: Wolfgang Rack (Gateway Antarctica)
Technology supervisor: Graeme Woodward (SERC)
Academic supervisor: TBC

Applicants are invited for the following PhD Degree project within the University of Canterbury’s College of Science.


Climate warming will soon begin to erode Antarctic sea ice as it has done in the Arctic, therefore the reliable determination of sea ice thickness is urgently needed. Sea ice thickness is the critical factor in controlling heat exchange between ocean and atmosphere. Unfortunately, available satellite-based estimates of sea ice thickness around Antarctica are confounded by the dual challenges of thick snow on the ice surface, and ice sheet-driven accumulations of tiny ice crystals at the base of the sea ice. We will overcome both these challenges and reliably extract sea ice thickness in complex Antarctic conditions by convolving new electromagnetic remote sensing and radar techniques, with observed in situ drivers of sea ice growth and decay.


The current methods to measure sea ice are satellite remote sensing or helicopter-borne Electro-Magnetic (EM) field instruments flown at a low level. Space-based measurements have insufficient accuracy to measure freeboard heights, and helicopter operations are limited by weather and low flying height safety concerns. This project will investigate methods to design and build an EM instrument suitable for integration into an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) capable of being flown on long-range missions in the Arctic and Antarctic. Ideally, the same platform will be capable of carrying an instrument to simultaneously measure snow depth.


  • To investigate the requirements for an autonomous UAS airborne instrument to measure sea ice thickness and snow depth.
  • Design and build a prototype EM instrument suitable for integration into a UAS airframe.
  • Design, build or procure a suitable airframe for the EM instrument, possibly including snow radar.
  • To carry out field trials of the flying instrument over representative surfaces, such as Antarctic sea ice.


The suitable candidate will have a background in Physics or Engineering, with strengths and interests in avionic engineering, mechatronics or electromagnetics in physics.

Scholarships and duration

The student with excellent grades will have a high chance of winning the UC doctoral scholarship to meet the enrolment fees and living expenses of the applicant. See the Scholarships at UC page.

The duration of the project will be three years, and the student will work mainly within, and use facilities of the Spatial Engineering Research Centre. There will be an opportunity to work with Gateway Antarctica and may be required to attend subsequent trials in the Antarctic.

Submission of applications

This opportunity will be open until filled, but the preferred start date is February 2016.
Applicants are required to submit the following documents by email to Graeme Woodward, Research Lead, Spatial Engineering Research Centre. 

  • Your current curriculum vitae.
  • An A4 page typed statement about how your experience or interests relate to the chosen project.
  • A reference from a supervisor or lecturer (or referee details).
  • A copy of your current academic grades transcript.

Please ensure you include: Full legal name, postal address, email address, telephone/mobile number, programme and year of study and student number.


  • The University of Canterbury reserves the right to not award the stipend if a suitable candidate is not found. 
  • Shortlisted applicants will be interviewed by the UC project supervisors, College of Science 
  • Applicants must meet the University of Canterbury enrolment criteria for postgraduate study.