Icebergs off the shores of Newfoundland and Labrador may draw thousands of tourists every year, but researchers with Memorial University are working on a project to study the icebergs and gather data to ensure they do not interfere with the shipping and oil industries. 

The Sea Dragon is an unmanned ocean drone vehicle that's part of a project at the Autonomous Oceans Systems Lab at Memorial, and it's making the study of icebergs cheaper and safer than ever before.

Ralf Bachmayer, associate engineering professor and chair for ocean technology, said the sea-going drone's name comes from its distinct design.    

"The name of the vehicle is actually the Sea Dragon because it sticks the head out of the water. That's how we envisioned it initially, and the name has stuck," Bachmayer told CBC Radio's The Broadcast

'Quite sturdy to operate in harsh conditions'

The Sea Dragon's design resembles some buoys that are already in use offshore, with about a quarter of the vehicle sitting above the surface of the water to monitor the top portion of nearby icebergs, while the rest gathers data under the surface. 

Bachmayer said that it is a high vehicle with a lot of draft, about seven metres from top to bottom, and about 2.5 metres across at it's widest, but it's still small compared to other offshore equipment.  

"In the grand scheme of things, for offshore, it's a relatively small platform, but yet it is quite sturdy to operate in harsh conditions," he said. 

The vehicle is made up of an inner structure of marine-grade aluminum with watertight compartments that hold batteries and computer systems, and an outer structure of thick fibreglass and foam that allows it to move efficiently through the water. 

Sea Dragon internal

The vehicle's inner watertight compartments house its batteries and computer components. (Jane Adey/CBC)

 "The idea here is to have a relatively small platform and let it stick around the iceberg. Most of the time [it] actually drifts with the iceberg, so we're not actively propelling unless we have to, and then you can survey an iceberg for up to a month," said Bachmayer. 

When the vehicle does have to actively propel, it uses two thrusters, one on each side, which Bachmayer describes as electric motors with propellers. It can then travel based on controls from a tablet or programmed GPS coordinates.

Data gathered and sent to shore

The Sea Dragon can gather several types of data while at sea, and it sends that information back to ocean and iceberg modellers on land.

The vehicle takes meteorological data above water and oceanographic data, like information on the currents, temperature and salinity, from underwater. 

There are also other sensors on board the vehicle, like laser scanners, cameras, radar and sonar to gather information directly from icebergs, which can then be compiled in to a three-dimensional model of the iceberg.

The data can also be used to determine if an iceberg poses a threat to nearby traffic and can be moved off track if it becomes a problem. 

"The earlier you can predict or forecast where an iceberg is going and if it's going to be a threat to a platform or to marine traffic, you can do something about it," Bachmayer said.

Sea Dragon

The Sea Dragon, shown on its side, measures about seven metres from top to bottom. (Jane Adey/CBC)

Cost savings

The technology aboard the Sea Dragon can also provide a cost savings. Bachmayer said it costs about $50,000 a day to send a ship out to survey icebergs, and that it takes a considerable amount of time to track their movement in the currents and to study their decay.

He said the project is about more than just saving money, however.

"It saves you cost, but at the same time, it gives you a tool to assess the risk of certain things and then make a good decision about it," said Bachmayer.

The project is still in the early stages of its deployment, but Bachmayer and his team are hopeful for the future of the Sea Dragon and for other projects at Memorial's Autonomous Oceans Systems Lab. 

"I think next year will be a big year for us where we have full sea trials, and we are planning on deploying around icebergs," he said. 

"We're internationally recognized, our lab, with the glider work that we've done, and now with this new vehicle, I think that people appreciate what we're doing. It's almost a mark — when you say it works in Newfoundland, it works anywhere." 

With files from Jane Adey