Keeping an Eye on the Arctic

Drones could solve Canada's Arctic surveillance deficiency.
By: /
November 27, 2012

Canada has a deficiency when it comes to Arctic surveillance. Our military presence in the Arctic consists of the brief deployments of two CF-18 warplanes to Inuvik and the occasional patrol of the vast area by an Aurora aircraft – a manned maritime surveillance aircraft introduced in 1980. Our warships and submarines are rendered useless in this environment as they can’t work in, or under, the ice. And we are reliant on a polar satellite that takes very narrow pictures of the territory and needs three weeks to collect information in the entire area.

At present Canada has very limited ability to assert its sovereignty over a region fiercely contested by several countries. So far Denmark, Norway, Canada, Russia, and the U.S., all of which lay claim to parts of the Arctic, have taken a relatively diplomatic approach, though there has been some notable flexing of military muscles. Canada felt severely threatened in 2007 when Russia sent a submarine to plant its flag four kilometres beneath the ice at the North Pole. At the time, Prime Minister Stephen Harper responded by announcing that the Nanisivik mine on the northern tip of the Baffin Island would house a deepwater docking facility, adding to Canada’s military presence in the region. He added that Canada knew it had to “use or lose” the Arctic.

Drones present a possible solution to this problem.

U.S. defence contractor Northrop Grumman is in the process of developing the Polar Hawk. This unmanned aerial vehicle is robotically operated with human oversight, and is able to stay airborne for up to 35 hours, is not armed, and can fly above the high winds that can be problematic in the Arctic. The drone can be used to provide constant summer surveillance, provide coastal patrol in the Atlantic and Pacific, monitor forest fires and floods, and provide scientific and environmental sensing while operating out of a single base.