A team of researchers from Memorial University of Newfoundland is back to work after spending nearly a month in the northernmost permanently inhabited place in the world.
In addition to packing parkas and tuques for the trip, the group also took along one of the university’s largest pieces of scientific equipment.
Peter King, Ron Lewis and Darrell Mouland – all employees with Memorial’s Core Research Equipment and Instrument Training (CREAIT) Network – travelled to Alert, Nunavut, in March as part of an expedition made up of scientists and technicians from the federal government, industry and academia participating in a field trial under Project Cornerstone. Led by Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC), a federal government agency, Cornerstone is a multi-year project that aims to assist Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) collect data using autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) technology to support their efforts in the geographical survey of Canada’s Arctic.
Memorial leased its state-of-the-art AUV – currently the only one of its kind in Canada – to DRDC for the trial. Experts from the respective organizations worked together to transport the vehicle to the high north. The disassembly, transportation, and re-assembly were no small feat given the AUV is four-and-half metres and weighs more than 650 kilograms. It can reach depths of 3,000 metres.
The trip was basically a dress rehearsal for a larger, more complex journey taking place next year. That’s when DRDC and NRCan will jointly launch a government AUV to gather important bathymetrical data that will support Canada’s survey efforts in the Arctic which are currently underway.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a number of northern countries – including Canada – are seeking international recognition of their rights to seabed resources in the areas stretching beyond the 200-mile limit.
The first AUV-assisted survey will begin in 2010 using two new AUVs currently being built by International Submarine Engineering (ISE) Ltd., the Port Coquitlam, B.C.-based company that manufactured Memorial’s AUV several years ago.
In order to ensure the vital equipment would work properly in high latitudes – and under the Arctic’s thick ice – federal scientists benefited both from the collaboration with Memorial experts and use of its vehicle.
“Traditionally, AUVs are launched and recovered in open water,” explained Mr. Lewis. “Given the environment, it was necessary to deploy through an ice hole. This took a substantial effort in engineering to create a reliable, repeatable system for use in subsequent years at remote camps in Arctic ice.”
After months of preparations and planning, Memorial’s team left for the northern adventure in early March and the AUV was successfully assembled and systems tested in the frigid waters over a two-week period.
The trip confirmed robotic vehicles could be used in the north’s harsh environments to map the Arctic Ocean.
Getting the expensive and hefty piece of equipment to the Arctic was no easy task.
Memorial’s team helped construct shipping crates, as well as sleds and skis to transport the AUV on ice and snow. It also built a piece of gear that held the AUV stationary while under the ice so data could be downloaded during battery charging.
“Our group successfully completed this test and our equipment met and surpassed all expectations,” said Mr. Lewis, who added that testing a comparable AUV to what will be used next year was a key to the mission.
“Without a reliable launch it would be difficult to use AUV technology in the Arctic environment. The Canadian government would have difficulty making its claim to the United Nations because of gaps in its seabed data beneath the polar ice.”
Project Cornerstone is an initiative of the Canadian government led by DRDC, NRCan, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, ISE and Memorial.
There are currently only five AUVs in the world like the one housed at Memorial.