OTTAWA—Even for the world’s biggest icebreaker, the best way through Arctic ice is to go around it.
There’s an art to navigating an obstacle course of ice floes thick enough to smash a hole in a steel hull.
Experienced seamen know how to suss out the softer spots. They watch for young ice, the spongy white floes that haven’t had several years to compress and harden into an Arctic mariner’s worst nightmare.
In daylight, old hands swear they can see the multi-year ice ahead from its distinct blue colour.
What icebreaker captains crave are leads, the stretches of water that open up between floes when warmer weather or heavy storms fracture swaths of sea ice.
The best way to see those lanes in real time is from the air, which is why Coast Guard icebreakers carry helicopters that fly reconnaissance missions.
As more private vessels take a run at Canada’s Northwest Passage, most radio the Coast Guard for updates on where to find the best leads. When mariners get stuck, they call for an icebreaker to free them, at taxpayer expense.
The Canadian owners of MV Nunavik, a bulk carrier built last year to haul nickel through the Arctic, think they’ve got a better idea.
They are experimenting with small drones, much like the ones popular with hobby flyers, to give the captain an aerial view of hazards that lie ahead.
Aided by a high-resolution camera mounted on a drone, Nunavik Capt. Randy Rose and his crew steered her into the record books in October, when she became the first bulk carrier to transit the Northwest Passage without an escort.
The vessel carried 23,000 tons of nickel concentrate from Deception Bay, on Hudson Strait, to Bayuquan, a port on China’s Bohai Sea coast, east of Beijing.
At 188.8 metres (619 feet) long, with five cargo holds and three deck cranes, the Nunavik is bigger than any other icebreaker in the world, says Tom Paterson, a senior vice-president of Fednav, Canada’s largest owner of ocean-going, dry-bulk ships.
The Nunavik was built in Japan’s Marine United Corp. shipyards to work a 20-year contract for the Chinese-owned mining company Canadian Royalties Inc.
But this is not the first time for UAVs in the Ice
The Schiebel S-100 CAMCOPTER has been operating with the Russian Coast Guard for over 18 months in the Arctic Circle.
With an endurance of 6 hours as standard or 10 hours with an external fuel tank for the S100 CAMCOPTER, I am not too sure how long the Li-Po batteries in the small quad copters mentioned in the article above would last in the Arctic Circle !! 5 -10 minutes max .