As Arctic ice is melting, neighboring countries are taking notice. Five nation-states have coastal claims: Canada, Denmark (through Greenland), Norway, Russia, and the U.S. As this rivalry heats up, Arctic drones will be used for scientific exploration, searching for fuel and other natural resources, monitoring sea lanes, and military assertions of sovereignty.
In addition, as countries turn to Arctic drones to track changes in the region — as well as one another — what role will unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) play in territorial disputes?
The market for commercial drones will experience a compound annual growth rate of 51% to reach 805,000 units in 2021, reports Business Insider. It estimates the total market, which also includes consumer and government drones, to grow from $8.5 billion in 2016 to $12 billion in 2021.
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- Changing conditions are leading to a new wave of international competition in the Arctic.
- Several governments have strategies for using Arctic drones to help them lay claims.
- There is an opportunity for drone manufacturers solve specific challenges related to extreme-cold environments.
Canada takes the lead
In July 2016, the Canadian military announced it is planning to launch two satellites in 2018 and 2022. Once launched, the nation will have a network in space that gives it better communication with its Arctic drones.
Also last year, Transport Canada said it was looking to purchase unmanned drones to monitor the Arctic and environmental challenges there. Transport Canada has put forward a tender for companies to bid.
Back in 2012, Canada was being lobbied to purchase drones for monitoring the Arctic.
Defense contractor Northrop Grumman tried to sell Canada three Polar Hawk drones, which are based on the Global Hawk drones the U.S. military uses for surveillance. These drones would have given Canada surveillance capabilities over the Arctic during the summer months.
At Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, professors and students are collaborating to develop a drone equipped with sensors that can operate in environments like the Arctic. One application proposed by the lead professor is to use drones to assess ice conditions ahead of a ship by testing the air. Currently, the drone they are working on comes from Pleiades, a drone maker also located in Halifax.
In addition, Nunavut-based startup Arctic UAV is moving to launch drones equipped with different capabilities, such as infrared and thermal mapping technology, for mapping, research, and rescue missions.
Russia controls fleets of drones
In 2014, Russia unveiled a plan to construct a drone base in the Arctic for “military reconnaissance.”
In 2015, RTI Systems, a Russian defense company, said it was developing a “complex control system” for the Arctic that used drones, underwater technology, and satellites. The company plans to have it operating between 2020 and 2025.
RTI is also working on Arctic drones with Tiber, a UAV company. The two companies are working to develop a new drone that will be programmed with a “fully automated operating system.”
In late 2015, Russia’s Eastern Military District commissioned a new “squadron” of drones to operate in the Arctic. The objective is to monitor the “combat readiness” of military units stationed there.
Arctic drones aren’t the only robotic systems being deployed. Russia is developing an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) called “Klavesin-2R-PM.” It can reportedly operate at depths of 6 km (3.7 miles) and has a speed of 50 km/h (26.9 knots).
The Russian government is also working on UAVs Yunona and Vityaz. The latter can operate at depths of 11 km (6.8 miles). All three are said to be developed for “research” purposes.
American robotics in the Arctic
The U.S. is also working on underwater drones. The U.S. Navy is developing Seaglider, which is intended to operate in the Arctic Ocean and monitor how fast the ice is melting. The U.S. wants an idea of how fast the strategic waterways will open up in its regional competition with Russia.
The U.S. Navy has also established its first unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) squadron.
Scandinavia readies research
Norway and Denmark are also taking steps with Arctic drones. In 2015, Norway opened the Arctic Center for Unmanned Drones. It will provide the entire “pipeline” to foster drone advancements, including research, training, education and “commercial activities.”
The “Danish Defence Agreement 2013-2017” outlined the use of Arctic drones to “carry out tests.” In June 2016, the Danish Defence Acquisition and Logistics Organization signed an agreement with the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) to develop a surveillance satellite for the Arctic.
Will Arctic drones follow from this, as is the case with Canada?
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Arctic drones differ, but goals are alike
One of the key differences between the Arctic claimants is that only two countries are publicly deploying drones for military purposes — Russia and the U.S. The other three claimants, Canada, Denmark, and Norway, are still in the “research” and “observation” stage.
Will this change in the coming years, and what would cause these three countries to develop or purchase a new generation of drones?
All five territorial claimants are deploying Arctic drones to stake their claims in the region. As they do this, they will effectively become dependent unmanned and autonomous systems for their operations in the Arctic. This an opportunity for manufacturers to come up with robots for air, land (or ice), and sea that solve specific challenges in extreme-cold environments.
For example, could a large “mother drone” provide shelter and charging for surveillance drones in the air, similar to the way air tankers fuel planes that are travelling long distances?
Or, might an underwater drone base operate autonomously, providing charging for underwater drones, using sensors to detect incoming threats, and transmitting data to agencies?
Note that countries that are in geographic proximity to the Arctic are not the only ones making claims. In 2013, Yong Sheng became the first ship in the world to travel from China to Europe through the Arctic.
Last year, China’s Maritime Safety Administration published a guidebook that proposed, among other things, sending Chinese cargo vessels through the Northern Passage.
However, Canada claims sovereignty over this area. Is Canada ready for this kind of geopolitical rivalry? Could China use Arctic drones to lay its own claims, monitor ice conditions, or cooperate with Russia?
As Arctic ice continues to melt, the stage is set for a new era of competition in the Arctic. Unmanned systems are becoming the most powerful tools for laying claims and monitoring other countries’ activities. How will Arctic drones shaping the future of the region?