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Drones to make short cut through the Arctic safe

Global warming has opened the Northeast and Northwest Passage and allowed ships to take a shortcut between Europe and Asia. Unfortunately, icebergs are still roaming and pose a danger to the ships. Now, drones are to help make the Passage safe.

By Birgitte Dalgaard, , 2/25/2020

Drones from the University of Southern Denmark have flown into geopolitical territory. Major trade interests are at stake as the ice around the Arctic is melting and allows ships to make a shortcut between Europe, Asia and North America using the Northeast and Northwest Passage at Arctic.

The Northwest Passage is open four months a year, during the summer, and China’s biggest shipping company, COSCO, is already using the passage. This saves the Chinese ships 10 days on the sea, but most shipping companies are still reluctant to use the passage. It is simply too dangerous.

Even though it is now possible to sail through the Passage, the icebergs pose a great risk

Agus Ismail Hasan, drone researcher

- A counting from the spring of 2017 found more than 400 icebergs in the North Atlantic shipping lanes. Even though it is now possible to sail through the Passage, the icebergs pose a great risk, stresses drone researcher Agus Ismail Hasan from the SDU UAS Centre.

However, there are major financial gains from using the short cut through Arctic, and the Danish Maritime Fund has invested in finding a solution. This has made it possible for drone researchers from SDU to work on a system to monitor the icebergs, so ships can cross the Passage safely.

Icebergs on GPS

Drone researcher Agus Ismail Hasan is leading the Artdrone project that aims to uncover the possibilities of using drones to map the icebergs in the area. The researchers hope to eventually be able to track all the icebergs, so they can be integrated into the global satellite-based navigation system, Galileo. This will enable ships to see the icebergs’ current position when crossing the Arctic.

The Northwest Passage

The Northwest Passage, which spans from the waters between Greenland and Canada, north of Canada through Canadian waters and all the way to the Bering Strait between Alaska and Siberia, is the most direct passage between Europe and Asia. But up until now, it has been permanently closed.

In 2007, the European Space Agency – ESA – released a mosaic of satellite photos that showed an open Northwest Passage. Since then, the Passage has been navigable around 4 months a year.

- The best way to map the icebergs is to use drones to place a tracker on the icebergs. As the icebergs are moving around in the water, a tracker will ensure that the GPS has the current position, Agus Ismail Hasan explains.

The drones will also be equipped with infrared cameras to capture not only the proverbial tip of the iceberg, but also the big part of the iceberg that is hiding underwater.

Agus Ismail Hasan hopes to eventually develop a long-distance drone with infrared cameras that has the required flying qualities to operate in the Arctic area. Especially the extremely cold weather poses a challenge.

- Ice and cold humid air create major problems for propellers and sensors. In addition, we cannot rely on our compasses. The readings from our magnetic and gyro-magnetic compasses are unstable near the Arctic, Agus Ismail Hasan explains and continues:

- In addition, the cold drains the batteries faster. Battery life is a major challenge in trying to place trackers on all icebergs, so right now we're exploring the possibilities of using fuel cell drones.

Meet the researcher

Agus Ismail Hasan is Assistant Professor at SDU UAS Center. His primary research focus is development of control theory for autonomous systems.

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