Arctic-Proof Drone to Study Climate Change


By The Maritime Executive 08-14-2015 07:47:20

A team in Canada’s Laval University has developed a drone that can withstand the extreme temperatures of the Arctic Ocean to uncover data that may help track the effect of climate change.

Laval University's Argo drone can survive in the extreme conditions of the Arctic Ocean, plunging to depths of almost 2,000 meters (6,560 feet) to collect data about marine organisms. This means that it can collect previously inaccessible data about Arctic marine ecosystems. 

The drone has already been tested in the waters of Baffin Bay, located between Baffin Island and the southwest coast of Greenland.

The Argo drone has been a few years in the making. In 2000, the UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission and the World Meteorological Organisation launched the Argo program with the aim of creating a global network of beacons for an integrated global ocean observing system. Now there are thousands of Argo floats or drones in oceans around the world. 

However the unforgiving conditions in the Arctic mean that it hosts very few, as Brigitte Robineau, executive director of Québec-Océan explains: “There are now nearly 4,000 Argo floats deployed in the oceans. However, because of the constraints imposed by the cold sea ice and icebergs, there are very few in the Arctic Ocean. As these instruments can provide valuable data to researchers who conduct work, the team of Marcel Babin and Claudie Marec undertook the design and manufacture of a float adapted to this environment.”

According to José Lagunas-Morales, a specialist embedded systems engineer on the project, the main challenge was to protect the drone from the threat posed by ice. The drone actually spends most of its time under water, but it is when it surfaces and possibly collides with ice that the telecommunications equipment, temperature sensors or other equipment could get damaged. Or it could become trapped by the ice – which would be very costly. 

Lagunas-Morales says, “We have to avoid the device getting trapped in ice because it would then become useless for research. Any error in design or programming could be very costly, literally and figuratively, since each tag is worth about $90,000.”

With this in mind, Lagunas-Morales developed an optical system which allows Argo to detect the presence of ice: ‘When it nears the surface, it emits a laser beam and the reflected light is collected and analyzed which allows it to distinguish the ice-free water. The float needs only one square meter of free water to the surface, but we programmed it with a safety margin of three square meters.” 

According to the University of Laval, four Argo floats equipped with this optical ice detection system will be deployed in the Arctic Ocean in the coming months. Within three years, it is expected that researchers will be able to rely on data from an armada of 23 devices.