Innovative sea ice observation

May 2023

Drones to propel maritime navigation.

We’re working with the National Research Council of Canada’s – Ocean, Coastal and River Engineering team, NSCC geomatic researchers and WarrierTech to develop autonomous ship navigation in icy conditions using unmanned aerial drones. SEATAC Program Director, John Stratton, explains the concept behind this Maritime Autonomous Surface Ship (MASS) project:

“We are taking an existing, relatively low-tech solution that has been demonstrated to work in today’s non-autonomous ship environment and re-imagining it for a scenario with autonomous ships. The concept is quite simple but making it all work correctly in real time will be a challenge.”

The research requires the development of communication methods, data fusion techniques and the amassing of data libraries. All of this will work in coordination to enhance situational awareness and path planning processes within navigation systems when ships are traveling through icy maritime environments.

The research is underway.

Effective planning and execution helped the team stay on track despite a few setbacks that were out of anyone’s control – such as a very short ice season this year and disruptions associated with COVID in previous years.

“In partnership with NSCC’s Applied Geomatics Research Group (AGRG), our data collection in the Northumberland Strait this year has gone very well,” Stratton said, highlighting the benefits of collaboration. “We were able to follow ice forecasts, scout flight locations, develop plans, and coordinate activities for several highly successful collection trips.”

Charting the path ahead.

The progress made showcases the promising future of the MASS project. Next steps will focus on developing drone-ship communication methods and protocols. This critical aspect will enable seamless interaction between autonomous drones and ships, paving the way for enhanced data collection and analysis. Stratton emphasizes the importance of building a comprehensive data library and taking a forward-thinking approach to their planning:

“The team aims to build a secure data library that combines data of differing quality, completeness, and applicability, from various sources.

We’re dedicated to continuous improvement and readiness for practical implementation. If this year taught us anything, it’s the importance of preparing operations for the next ice season as soon as possible. Atlantic Canadian winters have always been unpredictable, but never more so than now. We need to have various plans in place to accommodate harsh weather or like this year, lack thereof.”

This research exemplifies the spirit of Canadian innovation and is leading to ice field navigation systems that are safer for tomorrow.