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Field Trial 2010

As was discussed in the "Field Trial 2009" section, Canada wishes to extend its control over the Arctic Ocean sea-bed via the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). One of the requirements is the detailed knowledge of the bathymetry (depth) of the Ocean, and, therefore, Canadian scientists wish to make as many measurements as possible. The proposed new technique is to use an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) to "fly" above the sea bottom and measure the depths.

In the spring of 2009 the AUVs were still under construction, and so we borrowed a similar vessel from Memorial University of Newfoundland in order to practise as many of the steps as possible. In short, we wanted to learn what could go wrong.

The final deep-water vessels were finally completed by ISE (International Submarine Engineering) and delivered to the Crown on 22 September, 2009. (The hand-over ceremony is chronicled on several news sites, here, for example. 

The owners and operators then put one of the two new yellow submarines through its paces in the waters of Georgia Strait. To keep track of the vehicle they used the Canadian Forces Maritime Experimental and Test Ranges (CFMETR) at Nanoose Bay and Winchelsea Island, which is just off the east coast of Vancouver Island. By that time it was November; the days were short and the weather was generally poor. However, the operators came away satisfied with the vehicle's ability to navigate autonomously.

The location of the 2010 spring's Arctic operation is shown in the accompanying maps, the second map being an enlarged version of the first. The green arrow indicates the location of the ice camp, and the numbers give its latitude and longitude. Borden Island, which is just to the north protected the camp from the pack ice being pushed south by the northerly winds. MacKenzie King Island, which is about 20 miles to the south of the camp, gave some protection from northward-drifting ice. As a result, the camp was well sheltered and did not drift.

The reason for setting up in this general area is that water depths are quite poorly mapped north of this western section of the Arctic Islands. One of the chief reasons for this lack of knowledge is the enormous logistical difficulties in getting to this part of the Arctic. In order to establish a suitable ice camp, a large amount of equipment has to be flown in, and to make this reasonably easy, large freight aircraft, such as  Boeing 737s or Lockheed C-130 Hercules, must be able to land reasonably close to the prospective camp. The closest town with an air strip sufficiently long for these big freighters is Resolute Bay, which is some 600 km away from Borden Island. (It takes a stretch of the imagination to consider this as 'reasonably close'.) All freight has to be trans-shipped from Resolute to the ice camp by smaller aircraft, such as Twin Otters or Buffalo, and this is a difficult, time-consuming and expensive exercise. Even by Arctic standards, Borden Island is remote. And this, of course, is why so little is known of the bathymetry.

A secondary ice camp, known as Camp Cornerstone, was set up on the drifting pack ice about 330 km north of Borden Is., and it was to this camp that the AUV made its first major voyage - measuring water depths. From there, after recharging batteries and downloading data, the Cornerstone Crew sent it north on a further 300-km trip, again measuring water depths. It returned to Cornerstone, where the recharging and downloading was repeated. This time, the AUV was sent back to Camp Borden, and, after a suitable amount of floor-pacing and nail-biting, it arrived safe and sound. The attached Newsletters tell the story of the voyage - its preparation and its execution.

Only one of the two AUVs was used, and it made only one round-trip. However, that one trip was successful; the vehicle did not get lost, and it returned with data. Considering the short lead-time from project conception to maturity, this is quite impressive. Next year may well bring a flood of data.

Most of the Newsletters were written by Garry Heard, one of the principal scientific investigators from DRDC in Dartmouth NS. (Across the harbour from Halifax.) Three Newsletters were written by Alex Forrest, who is presently finishing up a PhD at the University of British Columbia. To differentiate the two, his name is included in his newsletters. The dates are indicated in the file names.

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Other Coverage

Paul Watson of the Toronto Star wrote several articles covering the latter stages of the project. He managed to generate a feeling of excitement and drama without letting his prose get too purple. What impressed me the most, however, was that he didn't make mistakes. Often, a technical article written by someone not familiar with the field will be riddled with small errors, and sometimes the article will bear very little resemblance to the facts. Watson managed to be the exception. He got it right.

13 February. AUV Explorer being prepared and tested in Indian Arm (north of Vancouver).

8 April. Preparations for launch at the Borden Ice Camp.

8 April. Visit of Foreign Affairs Minister, Lawrence Cannon.

13 April. Beginning of maiden mission.

14 April. Successful return of AUV