Canadian military developing surveillance system to monitor Arctic waters

Department of National Defence scientists arrived this week on Devon Island, Nunavut, to work on a new system to monitor Arctic waters.

System could consist of unmanned mobile sensors, underwater microphones and artificial intelligence

Scientists from Canada's Department of National Defence are in Devon Island, Nunavut, working on a number of new technologies designed to monitor Arctic waters. (Patricia Bell/CBC)

Department of National Defence scientists arrived this week on Devon Island, Nunavut, to work on a new system to monitor Arctic waters.

"It's important from a sovereignty perspective; if Canada has sovereignty over this part of the world, we need to know who's there," said Dr. Dan Hutt, of Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC).

"This is part of that solution."

Hutt is the director of the project, called the Canadian Arctic Underwater Sentinel Experiment, or CAUSE. It consists of developing and testing a number of new technologies at a remote military station in Gascoyne Inlet.

The station is a stone's throw away from Beechey Island, where graves from the doomed Franklin Expedition were found.

The roots of the station itself are a throwback to the Cold War, when the location acted as a choke point to monitor any Soviet submarines passing through the Arctic. Vessels travelling the most common route down Lancaster Sound have to pass within earshot of the station.

Today, the work taking place there has echoes of its submarine-monitoring past.

"DRDC is investing quite a bit of money to look at other sorts of innovative ways to do surveillance over the approaches to Canada with emphasis on the North," said Hutt.

AI and roving sensors

CAUSE, with a price tag of approximately $16 million, has several goals: developing underwater microphones that can be left on the Arctic seabed for years at a time, with a long-lasting power supply to match; working on autonomous underwater vehicles that can patrol the Arctic while towing sensors; and even developing artificial intelligence software that can analyze the sound as it comes in, rather than devoting a human analyst to constantly monitor the area.

"It's still got quite a ways to go until we've got a computer with enough artificial intelligence to reliably analyze tons of acoustic data and say, 'that's a ship, that's a whale, and, oh, that looks like a submarine,'" said Hutt.

"We can't do that reliably enough right now. At least not reliably enough for operational use. There always has to be a human in the loop these days."

Unmanned underwater vehicles like this one are part of the plan for monitoring Arctic waters. ((DRDC Atlantic))
The autonomous underwater vehicles come with their own challenges, like working under ice, having long range capabilities, and being able to dock at an underwater station and transmit data without human interference.

The project could be one of the ways the military will replace the aging North Warning System radar line, built in the 1980s, that currently keeps an eye on the North, watching for ships, missiles, and other threats.

It is also intended to watch the increasing number of civilian vessels that take the Northwest Passage, either for tourism or shipping. Many smaller vessels don't have the tracking systems that larger ships have, and with fewer eyes on the water and no deepwater ports to house coast guard ships, search and rescue is exponentially more challenging in the icy labyrinth of the Canadian Arctic archipelago.

Civilian scientists involved

The military has looped in civilian organizations on the scientific work. The government has a contract with Ocean Networks Canada, which runs the VENUS and NEPTUNE sensor arrays — giant underwater "laboratories" off the coast of British Columbia that monitor marine life and ship noise and perform other monitoring on the ocean floor.

Ocean Networks Canada scientists are currently at Gascoyne Inlet, exploring a technique to lay ice-resistant cables underwater, as well as examine other sites in the Arctic for their suitability for ocean observation systems.

Richard Dewey, an associate director at Ocean Networks Canada, says observatories in the Arctic like the one being tested at CAUSE present an essential opportunity for scientists to get measurements over long periods.

"The Arctic isn't just there in the summer when it's convenient for our [research] ships; we want to know what the Arctic is doing all year round," said Dewey.

"The time series from these observatories provide us with that continuous reference to see how things are changing in time."

The sensors being tested at Gascoyne Inlet for CAUSE are works in progress, a test of how to work in that extreme environment. Some equipment has been left in the ocean over the winter, and among the tasks the team will perform is to recover the equipment and check how it has fared. If it's still there, that is.

"There's always a chance that an iceberg has scoured them out," said Hutt.


  • An earlier version of this story stated that an Ocean Networks Canada associate director was unaware of any ongoing contracts with the Department of Defence. A Department of Defence spokesperson confirmed that Ocean Networks Canada has a contract as part of the CAUSE project.
    Aug 03, 2017 10:14 AM CT


Jimmy Thomson is a former reporter for CBC North.


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