The ship’s captain, Randy Rose, has a daunting task – navigating through the Northwest Passage that eluded countless Renaissance and Victorian age sailors. I didn’t know the first thing about icebreaking before researching this story, but it is an art. Brute force along the most direct route is rarely the best option. An experienced captain can read the ice and will be able to discern the young ice from the more mature ice. I understand that the mature ice appears blue while the young ice is the route to take.
The Canadian government had generally supplied Coast Guard escorts to the icebreakers, but that fleet is aging and the NUNAVIK can travel where even the Coast Guard icebreakers cannot. So Captain Rose is experimenting with drones to provide a birds-eye view of the ice ahead. He initially tried the less expensive commercial models, but they are hard to keep up in the strong Arctic winds and is going to try helium balloon mounted cameras next. You can see a corner of the UAS in an image from a Toronto Star article.
This is an important project, since even a small piece of ice is the size of a Cooper Mini and is hidden below the surface. Hopefully the aerial camera will be able to see it before the Captain, because even the reinforced NUNAVIK is susceptible to ice. I wish Captain Rose success with his innovative idea, especially since his ship cost four times the price of a similar non-icebreaking cargo ship and getting stuck is costly – time is certainly money for mariners.
I’ve written about how CASA, Australia’s FAA counterpart, has been more accepting of UAS than the FAA and big news recently came out of that country about the use of an American-made UAS. Firefighters in Australia have begun to use a Lockheed Martin UAS, the Indago, to aid firefighting missions. I have a bit more experience with fire than with ice, having been a part of the investigation into the fire onboard USS MIAMI back in 2012.
Last week, the Indago was used in its first real-world fire and provided invaluable information to the teams on the ground, including the location of the fire’s edge, hotspot data, and identifying people and property that were at high risk. Unlike most COA’s and exemptions I’ve seen that have been issued in the U.S., the Indago is allowed to operate at night. At least in this fire, manned firefighting aircraft had to land at nightfall. The Lockheed article linked above shows a picture of the UAS obtaining intel from the fire at night.
Indago is a highly versatile UAS, weights 5 lbs, can fly for 45 minutes up to a 10 km range, and at 10 m is only as loud as the “hum of a refrigerator.” I’ve included a spec sheet for one version. It can operate day and night and in rough weather conditions, which is important for a drone flying above a fire. While I am sure these are quite costly, I bet they would withstand Arctic winds well. Lockheed Martin has announced that the autopilot is no longer ITAR controlled and therefore at least one version of the Indago is more readily available to international customers. It is still controlled under the EAR, however. The first Indago UAS were delivered to the Heliwest Group, which provides aerial services in support of firefighting around Australia, in November 2014.
Prior to this first real-life mission, Indago underwent testing at one of the six FAA test sites at Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, New York (I visited here as a kid and saw the then-new stealth fighter). It provided situational awareness to the ground crew as well as to an unmanned helicopter, designed to supply USMC troops in Afghanistan. The latter was able to apply about 3,000 gallons of water on the fire over the course of an hour with information from the Indago. Hopefully it will not be long before we here in the U.S. can use this American technology in real-life emergency situations.