Nfld. & Labrador

Drones helping ship Voisey's Bay ore through Labrador ice

The world's most powerful ice-breaking freighter now has an even sharper edge.
A drone is operated by a technician near the bow of the Umiak 1 off the coast of Labrador recently. (Image courtesy Fednav)

The world's most powerful ice-breaking freighter now has an even sharper edge.

The Umiak 1 is used to ship Voisey`s Bay ore from Labrador to Montreal. That means it must regularly steam through thick and treacherous ice this time of year.

Enter the age of unmanned, aerial vehicles, better known as drones.

"Of course, drones and UAVs are in the news all the time and we thought it would be a good possibility to give more information to the ship's captain by being able to see further ahead,`said Thomas Paterson, a vice-president with Montreal-based Fednav, which bills itself as Canada's largest ocean-going, dry-bulk shipping company.

Last month, the company put a UAV film crew on the Umiak 1 for the regular trip from Montreal to Voisey's Bay and back. And while along the Labrador coast, they sent camera-equipped drones aloft.

"The signal from the camera feed goes straight back to the bridge of the ship — the wheelhouse," said Paterson. "So there's a television monitor located on the wheelhouse that the master of the vessel can view. And by taking the drone up to four or five hundred feet above the vessel's wheelhouse, you get a bird's eye view."

Can see for miles

That vantage point allows the crew on the bridge to look miles ahead, spotting obstacles like ice ridges that could slow or damage the ship.

"It makes the voyage more efficient so the ship can steer toward the easier ice, and by doing that we save a lot of time, and by saving time we save money and, of course, less fuel consumption."

The cost of operating an ice-breaking carrier like the Umiak 1 is between $70,000 and $100,000 a day.

Paterson believes the technology will more than pay for itself over time.

"If we can reduce the voyage time by one day ... of course, the economics are there and they're very sound. The relative cost of the UAVs is much smaller in comparison."

Fednav views the Umiak 1 as a pioneer in the use of such drones.

The company also believes it's only a matter of time before more shippers start using them to navigate through ice and other sea-going obstacles.