Highway mapping project between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk nearly complete

Using a drone, the team took thousands of images of the Northwest Territories highway between Tuktoyaktuk and Inuvik over two weeks in late July to early August of 2019.

The project was done in part to test new and safer ways to surveil the Arctic

A crew member for the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration takes a last minute maintenance check on the SeaHunter, the Unmanned Aircraft System used to take photos of the highway between Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk, and portions of the Dempster Highway. (Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration)

A project to map a Northwest Territories highway between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk is nearly wrapped up.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada began the project through Transport Canada's drone project testing technology in the Arctic and through partnerships with the Government of the Northwest Territories and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. 

Using the SeaHunter, an Unmanned Aircraft System [UAS], or more commonly referred to as a drone, the team took thousands of images of the highway over two weeks in late July to early August of 2019.

Then, a team at the University of Alaska Fairbanks spent the next two years processing around 60,000 photographs.

"We did this project as a proof of concept. We wanted to understand what the specifications were for mapping the highway and documenting best practices for the future," said Carolyn Bakelaar, geographic information systems coordinator for the Ontario and prairies region for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans [DFO] and the project lead.

"Because this had not taken place before, it took a lot of visionary, leadership and commitment to carry out this mission," said Bakelaar. "There were so many people involved and so many organizations to get the bird in the air and that was really exciting to be a part of."

A photo of the crew in Inuvik with the SeaHunter. They spent two weeks taking photos of the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway and portions of the Dempster Highway. (Department of Fisheries and Oceans)

It started almost five years ago, in 2017, Bakelaar said, with their first steps being getting approval to fly the drone. They also visited Inuvik in advance to make sure the residents were informed of the project.

"We presented it at community meetings, we even went to the high school and gave some presentations to Grade 9's and 10's [students] and really we wanted to make sure that when we got there, everyone was aware of what we were doing."

Andrew Wentworth works with the university's Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration and was chief pilot and deputy program manager for the mission. 

He said that though they are used to working in the North and doing mapping, they have never undertaken a project this big before.

"All of our previous mapping missions had been smaller stuff with a smaller unmanned aircraft," Wentworth said.

"We ran into an enviable problem of how do we manage all of this data. We before processed smaller amounts of data and there was a challenge of figuring out how to eat the elephant so to speak."

Crew members from the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration examine the inside of the SeaHunter. This is during the two weeks they were taking the photos of the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway and portions of the Dempster Highway. (Department of Fisheries and Oceans)

Wentworth hoped this project helped prove that using the drone to conduct surveillance in remote locations is safe and effective.

"There's a lot of nothing out there and manned aircrafts, if you have a problem … you've got a rescue effort and potentially … human lives at risk," Wentworth said.

"But, with an unmanned aircraft, I mean, we still want to get the equipment if it goes down out there, but there's no rush because no one's going to expire out there on the tundra."

He added that by using the drone, they benefited from a fuel consumption and environmental impact perspective — they were burning less than 1 per cent of the fuel of a manned aircraft to cover the same amount of highway.

Now, the team is in the final stages of preparing the data into an orthomosaic, a collection of all the photos taken into one picture, and a digital elevation model.

Bakelaar is hoping to have it all made available to the public this summer.

"I think the data itself is really important because it'll help us to understand in the future possible impact of climate change and impacts of human use in areas that are normally hard to get to, at least by road," said Bakelaar.

"It shows that we can achieve what had not been done before in terms of a research and development type of project and what we really showed is that we can use beyond visual line of sight technology and integrate with the local air space and gather data in the Arctic."


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