Making Drones For the Arctic Is Harder than it Looks

Drones in the Arctic have to deal with ice fog and shitty compasses, which means developing new solutions.

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Oct 10 2014, 4:25pm

Image: DRDC

After recently performing experiments commissioned on behalf of the Canadian Department of Defence, scientists at Defence Research and Development Canada are investigating the potential for unmanned robotics to support troop operations in the Arctic theatre. It's not a simple task. For example, "ice fog," which consists of instantaneously crystallizing ice, is just one of the many issues scientists are solving for Canada's polar drones.

"The idea behind the experiment was to take some unmanned systems and to put them into the Arctic environment," said DRDC scientist Dr. Simon Monckton, who worked on the Joint Arctic Experiment in Alert, Canada's northernmost scientific outpost. "We had both unmanned air vehicles and unmanned ground vehicles."

Related: Canada Wants To Scientifically Prove It Owns the North Pole

Tasked with experimenting the potential for unmanned vehicles in search and rescue, surveillance, and emergency responding tasks—like monitoring radiation exposure from the skies—Canadian researchers gleaned data that could someday contribute to plans for a new Arctic drone fleet.

The rotary-wing UAV tested, and its view from the sky. Image: DRDC

Monckton said the unforgiving polar airspace provided a series of significant and unique challenges for the rotor-wing drone researchers tested. First off, navigating at the northernmost regions of the Earth is difficult—and even more so when you're flying remotely.

"A lot of these systems—UAVs particularly, and rotor-wing (that is to say helicopters or quadrotors)—are even more sensitive. They require a good understanding of what they're heading in. And by heading, that's kind of the direction you're facing," said Monckton.

And because of those difficulties, finding headings for aerial drones in the Arctic requires stronger GPS systems to establish a "line segment" of locational data, ripped, according to Monckton, from a "crown" of satellites hovering on top of Earth.

In terms of weather conditions, the extreme sub-zero temperatures is devastating on a UAV when you mix in fog or clouds. While crisp cool air with clear skies provides excellent flying conditions, once you mix in ice fog, it becomes a major risk to small UAVs.

"The biggest risk in the Arctic is structural icing," said Monckton who explained that water in the clouds is so cool that when "you strike it, it actually crystallizes on contact."

The DRDC's unmanned ground vehicle test bed. Image: DRDC

Unsurprisingly, the wings of a drone being enveloped in ice presents "a major impediment to general unmanned air operations," Monckton said. In part, because "UAVs are too small to carry standard deicing equipment [as used] on a commercial aircraft. So that's a major problem."

For the project, DRDC took a previously manned helicopter and modified it into an unmanned vehicle. They had help from Calgary-based Meggit Canada for the project, a defence and security contractor also responsible for this armed training hexicopter.

As for ground drones, or unmanned ground vehicles, Monckton said weather and temperature were an afterthought. The real challenge, was the actual terrain.

"The arctic has a really peculiar surface," said Monckton, adding that the high Arctic offers mostly marshlands, rocky outcrops, or elevated permafrost that produces spiky formations. "So the UGV was kind of going between easy riding on sloppy stuff and then getting pounded to pieces on the rough frost boils."

Another UGV concept. Image: DRDC

Overall Monckton envisions the future of Canadian UAVs in the Arctic as support machines in manned operations, rather than complete replacements for human operators. "The unmanned systems are not an obvious solution necessarily for all problems and their best role in today's technology is to support manned operations," said Monckton.

Given the harshness of the polar climate, Monckton thinks something like an all-weather UAV would be difficult to design. That being said, in close proximity missions, where UGVs or UAVs are deployed within range of manned vehicles, something like ice-pack surveying or certain search and rescue operations, seems inevitable.

Despite some of the difficulties facing smaller drones in the Arctic, there's no denying unmanned systems could be the perfect vehicles for monitoring a vast landmass most humans can't survive on their own.

And with Cold War-esque tensions brewing again, flying machines are on the minds of DND procurement officers. With plans to purchase the next generation F-35 strike fighter already in the pipeline, the latest defence procurement plans from the Canadian feds also earmark increased drone capabilities to potentially patrol Arctic air spaces.

New Arctic oil and natural gas extraction is also on the minds of Canadian policymakers. In light of climate change, which is bringing increasingly iceless waters, resource harvesting will increase, and with it potential toxic spills drones are uniquely capable of monitoring in remote waters. It's worth noting that the DRDC experiments included testing the abilities of drones detecting radiation and hazardous materials.

While Monckton concedes a UAV fleet patrolling the Canadian Arctic seems like a long way off, "I think there's a lot of promise in what we saw in our experiment."

In the long term, the data Monckton's research team gathered from their Arctic drone experiments will eventually inform government technologies and private industry looking to satisfy the strategic needs of the Canadian Forces. In other words, new Canadian drones flying in the North Pole is pretty much inevitable.

And who knows, maybe as climate change does its job, the Arctic warms, and the surface ice melts, Canada's polar drones will have it easier than we all expected.