Scientists from Curtin University in Australia have successfully used drones to recover a 70g meteorite that fell over Western Australia in April 2021.
The fireball on 1st April 2021 was observed by cameras from the Desert Fireball Network (DFN). Using this footage, a ‘strewn field’ was calculated, that is to say, the area where any potential meteorites might be found.
However, rather than the traditional field-walking fingertip search, scientists decided to use drones and machine learning to help.
One drone surveyed the fall zone with a high resolution camera. The data were then loaded into a machine learning algorithm which hunted for meteorite candidates in the images. To train the algorithm, the scientists placed a few real meteorites in known locations.
Once candidate rocks had been identified, a second drone was sent to take a closer look, flying low over each potential meteorite and sending back high quality images. This allowed the search team to check out the rocks without having to walk to the site.
After the second drone’s work was done the team had identified five likely candidates. They then went in on foot to check each out and to their delight, one of the five turned out to be a 70g recently fallen meteorite! Furthermore, the recovery was very close to the predicted fall line, which demonstrates the effectiveness of the technique.
Although not applicable in every situation this new approach could allow searches to be carried out more quickly and safely, especially in remote or dangerous locations. For example a recent meteorite fall in Croatia remains unrecovered, because the strewn field is also an uncleared minefield.However, this method could be used even in such locations, perhaps even allowing scientists to use drones to safely recover the fall.
So, expect to see more robotic rock recovery in the future!
Full details are available from the ArXiv server https://doi.org/10.48550/arXiv.2203.01466