Innovations
July 9, 2012

Outer limits: Scientific collaboration and AUVs help determine continental shelf

At first glance, federal defence scientists focused on research supporting the Canadian Forces and geoscientists collecting scientific data on the Arctic seabed may seem like an unlikely pairing.

However, both have come together in Project Cornerstone, a meeting of the minds between Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) and Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) that will leverage autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) technology to execute a unique mission into uncharted waters: data collection to support Canada’s submission to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

In 2010, AUVs purchased this past September from Vancouver-based International Submarine Engineering (ISE) will undertake ambitious 400 kilometre-long missions at an underwater depth of up to 5,000 metres.

While the data will shed light on the outer limit of Canada’s continental shelf, the vehicles will break technological boundaries.  

Autonomous idea
When Canada ratified UNCLOS in 2003, the burden of proof for the 2013 submission was placed on scientific-based information. NRCan and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans were chiefly tasked with gathering both seismic data, to determine the geophysical structure of the land under the water, and bathymetry data, to establish water depth readings required to substantiate Canada’s submission.  

While data acquisition in the Atlantic Ocean was a relatively straightforward process, Jacob Verhoef, director of the UNCLOS program, knew that collecting Arctic data, which began in 2007, would be a much different matter.

“If you want to do something in the Arctic you need to plan a year and a half in advance,” Dr. Verhoef explains. “You must also consider the impact of weather. When it changes, your plans and your costs will drastically change on you.

“For the bathymetry data surveys we are conducting in the Eastern Arctic this proved to be very true. To date we have been using what is called the ‘Through Ice’ method, which relies heavily on taking sound measurements at points sometimes up to five kilometres apart. Helicopters are used for transportation from point to point. It is virtually impossible to use ships in this particular region. This method was proving to be challenging both in terms of cost, for example with the rising price of fuel, and in terms of establishing safe ice camps to work from. The ice we are working on has become very unpredictable and this makes for risky conditions.”

Given those complications and a demanding collection schedule, Verhoef sought solutions from both industry and the federal network of science-based organizations. Among the ideas proposed was the use of AUVs for bathymetry collection. Several years earlier, it had been discarded due to the distance involved and the lack of a robust power supply onboard.

The idea resurfaced, however, when Verhoef visited DRDC’s Atlantic research centre in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. During a brainstorming session with the centre’s scientific personnel, Verhoef met David Hopkin, section head of Maritime Asset Protection. Although an AUV had never before successfully completed a mission in unforgiving Arctic conditions for a distance of 400 km, Hopkin asserted that it was technologically possible to meet all of Verhoef’s operational requirements, including: an onboard bathymetry data collection system; the ability to conduct lengthy missions without needing to resurface to re-charge the batteries; and, importantly, the ability to reliably retrieve the vehicles at the end of the mission.

Hopkin’s assertion was based on his experience deploying an AUV in the Arctic on a 365 km mission during a joint U.S.-Canada military project in the mid-1990s. At the time, DRDC had developed and built an AUV with ISE, and Hopkin was confident the mission could be repeated with some modifications.

Hostile environment
In the spring of 2008, with both DRDC and NRCan leadership onboard, Hopkin presented to the UNCLOS assistant deputy minister-level steering committee the proof of concept needed to advance the project. The committee approved the plan, noting both its value to the UNCLOS survey and Canadian research capabilities, and set in motion the acquisition of two vehicles called Arctic Explorer.   

In September, the DRDC Atlantic team leading the project received the two AUVs from ISE and are now testing and conducting trials and building new systems. A dress rehearsal this past spring with an AUV loaned from Memorial University allowed the team to practice assembling and launching in Arctic conditions.  

“This project brings together a lot of interesting skills that are addressing some extremely challenging problems,” Hopkin says. “We are taking an expensive piece of equipment into an operating environment that is extremely hostile. Consider that 99 percent of AUV operations today are conducted in comparatively benign conditions in southern parts of the globe. We are carefully drawing from our expertise to plan and set up a safe ice camp where we can cut through ice two metres thick to launch an AUV which is seven metres long. There are many little tricks that took us several years to learn, such as how do we get a vehicle this size, weighing 1,800 kilograms to a remote location. The vehicles were designed to be modular, so that the five sub sections can easily fit into a Twin Otter plane, which is the primary transportation in the Arctic.”   

The AUVs will be fitted with a number of customized systems, a task that has the DRDC Atlantic lab buzzing with activity. “If the AUVs get confused, they must be able to execute fail-safe manoeuvres to maximize their ability to recover from a sub-system failure,” Hopkin says.     

Both the navigation system and homing device are essential to ensure the vehicles arrive at their final destination, a far cry from the GPS system in your car.  

“The ice can drift up to 3 km in one day. If I tell the vehicle to arrive at a certain position on the ice after a three-day journey, there is a pretty good chance that the final destination point could be as much as 10 kilometres off-course,” Hopkin explains. “It is like playing a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey but the guy with the donkey is walking around just as much as the person with the tail.

“Our new system will allow the AUVs to home-in on the destination even if it has drifted. We’ve installed a special set of hydrophone arrays in each AUV so it can receive a signal from a transponder emitting an acoustic signal that will help it determine the direction it should take to arrive at the destination. As the ice drifts and the transponder location changes, the onboard hydrophone array will be able to ensure the AUVs course is updated.”   

Arctic experience, he adds, is invaluable. “It takes years and years of developing expertise to be able to go out onto the sea ice, establish an ice camp and survive. So it is something you need to maintain. You cannot expect to start up a new project next year and instantly have trained experts. At DRDC we want to maintain this capability and also increase our ability for larger projects like Cornerstone. A new generation of scientists are working on this project, making it an ideal knowledge-transfer opportunity.  

“Our primary client, the Canadian Forces, is showing an increased interest in AUV technology and in the application of different technologies for the Arctic. In 2012, when ownership of these AUVs is transferred over to DRDC, our research program will get a significant boost.”

“It really is extraordinary to see how other federal partners are willing to assist and mobilize qui

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