Northern Exposure: The Future of Unmanned Systems in the Arctic

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Will AUVs and UAVs help open the earth’s northern reaches?

By K. Joseph Spears

The Arctic is one of the world’s last remaining frontiers. Though mapped long ago, much about this massive area remains unknown. For example, only ten percent of Canadian Arctic waters are charted to modern hydrographic standards. Scientists know more about the physical characteristics of the moon and Mars than about the waters of the planet and of the Arctic, in particular.

The Arctic Ocean basin, a landlocked sea similar to the Mediterranean, is a harsh, yet pristine environment. Ice-covered for much of the year and cloaked in darkness for six months annually, the Arctic is largely uninhabited and has limited infrastructure for ocean governance. This, however, is unlikely to continue. Changes in sea ice conditions brought about by climate change will allow human activity to increase in the Arctic. The U.S. Navy predicts up to 60 days of “open water” in the area by 2030. There are still many hazards and unknowns to this harsh area; diminishing sea ice does not mean an absence of ice. In fact, the Arctic Ocean Basin can actually become more dangerous as more vessels navigate these remote waters.

Currently, there is both an infrastructure and information gap related to governance, scientific research, environmental preservation, and natural resources extraction in the Arctic. Both aerial and underwater unmanned systems can play a major role in filling these gaps through such roles as mapping the land and sea ice, monitoring burgeoning infrastructure, and maximizing the capabilities of existing platforms. The Arctic represents an environment where unmanned systems can adapt beyond the military context with which they are so often associated, and provide a test run of sorts on how to use and regulate drones.

In August and September 2014, a Canadian team of government scientists , academics, private sector researchers, and nongovernmental organizations—supported by the Royal Canadian Navy, the Canadian Coast Guard, and Parks Canada—deployed to the Arctic attempting to find the two sunken vessels of British explorer Sir John Franklin, who had set out in 1845 to find the Northwest Passage but was never heard from again after becoming trapped in the ice. The loss of the Franklin’s Royal Navy vessels was a major mystery of the 19th century that captured the world’s imagination. For the next 150 years, the numerous expeditions commissioned to search for Franklin led to much of the exploration of the Canadian Arctic. In 2007, the Canadian government started using unmanned underwater systems, which have  matured and developed for Arctic operations, to scan the seafloor looking for evidence of the vessels.

The search utilized an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) owned by Defense Research Development Canada (DRDC) of the Department of National Defence with an onboard and very robust side scan sonar made by Kraken of Newfoundland. The team located one of Franklin’s vessels—likely the wreck of HMS Terror—using a traditional Klein side scan sonar towed by a government vessel. Previously, it was believed that the ice had crushed these vessels, and that nothing was left but a mass of splinters. Instead, the Canadian team found one of the Royal Navy vessels in relatively shallow water, intact and upright on the seafloor, in Simpson Strait in the fabled Northwest Passage. The location remains a secret and has been designated a national historic site under Canadian legislation.

DRDC AUV Canada Franklin Expedition

On the 2014 search for Franklin’s vessels, the DRDC of Canadian Department of National Defence utilized an AUV, built by International Submarine Engineering Limited, equipped with a high-resolution Kraken synthetic aperture sonar from a vessel chartered by the Canadian government. (Lee Carson/Norstrat)

The underwater autonomous vehicle was designed and built by a Canadian company, International Submarine Engineering Limited of Port Coquitlam, B.C., which designed the vehicle to operate under the ice for extended periods and map the seabed in order to define the outer edge of the continental shelf under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Article 76 of the convention allows coastal states to extend the continental shelf beyond their 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The ocean substrate can be rich in hydrocarbon resources, to which the coastal state lays claim. This has been a boon for underwater autonomous vehicles, which can search under sea ice (without requiring an icebreaker) and provide oceanographic data.

Arctic nations are now mapping these waters in order to submit claims to extend their respective continental shelves. Given its abundance of untapped natural wealth, and as the Arctic becomes more penetrable, these claims will occur more frequently and take on greater significance. In 2007, for example, Russia claimed the North Pole based on research indicating its continental shelf extended that far. In the summer of 2014, a Canadian expedition of two icebreakers, the CCG Louis St. Laurent and CCG Terry Fox, mapped waters near the North Pole as part of Canada’s claim for the extension of the continental shelf based on geological substrate and other physical oceanographic characteristics. In the past, such expeditions utilized AUVs, and they are likely to do so again.

Canada has worked closely with the United States in joint Arctic research cruises to delimit the outer continental shelf in the Arctic in their respective waters. This has involved the research icebreakers USCG Healy and CCG Louis St. Laurent which utilized AUVs to map bathymetric information to support a claim to extend the continental shelf. Use was also made of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) by researchers aboard the vessels. (The Raven by AeroVironment was operated by a U.S. Air Force captain in this case.) These UAVs proved to be capable and robust in 2011.

While the successful search for the remains of the Franklin expedition garnered the personal attention of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the bigger story was that unmanned systems provide a cost-effective solution to the Arctic navigation dilemma. As the presence of military forces, international shipping ecotourists, resource development, and scientific research increases, Arctic information gaps will need to be filled. Unmanned systems may continue to furnish a relatively inexpensive way to assist in mapping, natural resource development, and, as shall be seen, coping with increases in marine traffic through the Arctic waters of Canada, the United States, Greenland, Norway, and Russia.

drone UAV Arctic Fednav quadcopter

Fednav’s ice intelligence service Enfotec deploys a quadcopter from the icebreaking cargo vessel M/V Umiak 1 off the Labrador coast in March 2014, providing real-time data for tactical ice navigation. (Fednav)

New Routes, New Opportunities 

Increased levels of international shipping will be a game changer for global trade as the Arctic Ocean warms to the point where vessels can transit across its basin, shaving off travel days, thousands of kilometers, fuel costs (the industry’s largest cost driver), and Panama canal fees, to name just a few. In addition, there are numerous mineral resources, including hydrocarbons, in this region. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered energy resources are located in the Arctic, as well as numerous minerals and rare elements used in the manufacture of microchips and other electronic components.

In the past, ice conditions made development of these resources prohibitive; specialized icebreaking vessels were required, and they were too costly to build and operate in sufficient numbers. As the sea ice recedes and thins, such ships may no longer be necessary.

UAVs: Useful Tools in Harsh Climates

These developments render UAVs useful in a number of roles. First in the case of Canada, the world’s largest coastal state with 244,000 km of coastline and 9.3 million km² of ocean space, UAVs provide government agencies a cost-effective means of monitoring these waters. The Canadian government is deeply concerned about its sovereignty in the North, which is very sparsely populated. Ottawa claims the Northwest Passage as internal waters, and maintaining real-time maritime domain awareness over these potential shipping lanes is critical to Canada’s sovereignty claim. With some estimates calculating UAV operating costs at only 10 percent of those of a helicopter, they will play a critical role in Canada’s Arctic policy.


With some estimates calculating UAV operating costs at only 10 percent of those of a helicopter, they will play a critical role in Canada’s Arctic policy.


Second, the environment and shipping routes remain hazardous regardless of sea ice decline, and current sensor platforms, such as manned aviation, operate sub-optimally in the extreme conditions north of 60 degrees latitude. This ongoing risk provides the unique opportunity for the development of UAVs to be in on the ground floor for data collection independent of other sensor platforms. Unlike more populated areas of North America, the Arctic has fewer existing governance structures and infrastructure within which UAVs would have to safely integrate. One need look no further than the ongoing debate between the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and UAV proponents on how quickly to open the National Airspace to drones to see why a less populated region would suit these systems well. That said, it should be noted that for high altitude use of UAVs, numerous polar air routes cross through Canadian and U.S. airspace. Therefore, any use of drones at such altitudes in or near commercial airspace presents air traffic control conflicts. In addition, geostationary satellites lose their ability to communicate above 66 degrees North.

UAVs represent a platform able to collect a wide variety of data depending on the sensors used, and their potential is essentially unlimited even in the harsh conditions characteristic of northern latitudes. This year, the DRDC conducted UAV research at Alert, the most northerly military base and community in Canada, on Ellesmere Island. The UAVs tested were shown to be reliable and useful. Other uses of UAVs thus far have included assisting U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers, providing real-time information with respect to predator control concerning polar bears, pollution monitoring, and tactical ice navigation (see sidebar).

Third, the diminishing ice conditions and lengthening commercial navigation should allow for the development of previously uneconomical resource extraction activities. Interest in these areas is not notional: The USGS estimates that there are “90 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil, [and] 1,670 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable natural gas” in the Arctic Circle.

In both Canada and the United States, the environmental approval process for the development of commercial-scale projects in the Arctic, such as mining and oil and gas drilling, is lengthy and detailed. To be approved, the project applicant must provide baseline data of the existing environment and the possible impact that a proposed project will have on these sensitive and pristine ecosystems. Thus, there should be a rapidly increasing demand for scientific research well into the century.


While the successful search for the remains of the Franklin expedition garnered the personal attention of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the bigger story was that unmanned systems provide a cost-effective solution to the Arctic navigation dilemma.


This emerging demand is in addition to pure research that is undertaken by a variety of academic institutions and government agencies. Rugged, small, and relatively simple UAVs cost a fraction of the cost of aircraft with certified pilots, infrastructure, and fuel support. Moreover, smaller drones are often better suited for aerial monitoring as they do not significantly disturb animals, which is especially important when monitoring sensitive wildlife populations enduring environmental stressors arising from climate change.

Fourth, in much of the Canadian Arctic archipelago, there is very little aviation infrastructure—most runways are gravel—and arguably on some days there are more people in transpolar flights than there are residents in Nunavut (36,408). It can be costly to preposition fuel caches and ensure housing requirements for aircrew in far-flung islands thousands of kilometers away from urban areas.

In Alaska, for example, the U.S. Coast Guard operates fixed and rotary wing aircraft from a temporary facility at Nome on a seasonal basis while its annual Arctic operation, Arctic Shield, is underway. Canada does not maintain any dedicated military search and rescue aircraft in the Arctic, even during the summer season. In an emergency, search aircraft must deploy from southern Canada—often taking 10 hours to render assistance to a marine or aviation casualty. UAVs can play a major role in search and rescue response in this region.

Governance: Air and Sea Regulation 

In Canada, the regulation of UAVs has not proved as problematic as in the United States. The Canadian regulatory agency, Transport Canada, acting under the authority of the Aeronautics Act, regularly issues Special Flight Operating Certificates under Canadian Aviation Regulations, especially in the Arctic where airspace conflicts are rare and UAVs are clearly useful. Given the remote nature of the Arctic and the importance of governance, it’s fair to say that there is more flexibility in the use of UAV systems under the Canadian regime. In the United States, the FAA has essentially banned all UAV operations and has a cumbersome approval process at present. The FAA has designated test ranges for “research and commercial purposes” north of Alaska (and elsewhere) that are being used as a test and research airspace for UAVs operations. Over time, the U.S. government’s approach will likely evolve to take into account the importance of unmanned systems to Arctic governance. In June 2014, for example, the FAA allowed commercial overland drone flights for pipeline inspections in Prudhoe Bay on Alaska’s North Slope. This was the first approval of commercial overland UAV use in the United States.

In the subsurface realm, there are no regulatory requirements, but there will be ocean space conflicts that would normally be covered under the internationally accepted Collision Regulations involving the navigation of surface vessels. This marine governance issue will need to be addressed in the coming years as AUV activity increases.

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Peering Ahead

The Arctic provides an excellent and harsh testing ground to gauge the efficiency of undersea and aerial robotic systems. Commercially, the need for baseline data will grow as the Arctic opens up to resource development and commercial shipping. It is clear that UAVs provide a force multiplier for end-users with a requirement to obtain real-time data on a cost-effective basis in the Arctic. UAVs can aid in solving governance challenges to this influx of shipping by expanding the real-time information available to government regulatory agencies in these remote waters. Though climate change has made the Arctic more hospitable, it is still a dangerous and difficult environment; fortunately, extensive testing has shown UAVs can successfully operate in the far north.

The Royal Canadian Navy will soon build a class of Arctic offshore patrol vessels (AOPS), and unmanned systems will be an integral part of the force multiplier used to extend these vessels’ reach, giving them a multi-mission and sensor capability coupled with robust data fusion.

As this summer’s successful search for Franklin’s ships has shown, both aerial and subsea unmanned systems will be an integral part of Arctic activities in this coming century; a century in which the Arctic will no longer be a frigid curiosity but rather a global strategic and economic asset.

K. Joseph Spears is a maritime barrister and ocean policy consultant with Horseshoe Bay Marine Group. Joe is a pilot and has worked in the Canadian Arctic on scientific research. He has acted as outside counsel to Canada’s regulatory agency, Transport Canada, as well as other federal departments and has worked on Arctic shipping while studying at the London School of Economics and the London marine insurance market in 1986. He helped prepare Canada’s submission on Arctic shipping to the Arctic Council in 2009. He can be reached at kjs@oceanlawcanada.com.

 Lead Art: A Raven UAV was used on a U.S. Geological Survey mission to image ice conditions and search for marine mammals. (USGS)

This article appeared in the November 2014 issue of Unmanned Tech Solutions.