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The Canadian Department of National Defence’s scientists have started working on a new system to monitor Arctic waters, including autonomous vehicles. “It’s important from a sovereignty perspective; if Canada has sovereignty over this part of the world, we need to know who’s there,” Dr. Dan Hutt, of Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC), told Hutt is the director of project Canadian Arctic Underwater Sentinel Experiment (CAUSE). It consists of developing and testing a number of new technologies at a remote military station.

“DRDC is investing quite a bit of money to look at other sorts of innovative ways to do surveillance over the approaches to Canada with emphasis on the North,” said Hutt.

CAUSE, with a price tag of approximately $16 million, has several goals: developing underwater microphones that can be left on the Arctic seabed for years at a time, with a long-lasting power supply to match; creating autonomous underwater vehicles that can patrol the Arctic while towing sensors; and even developing artificial intelligence software that can analyze the sound as it comes in, rather than devoting a human analyst to constantly monitor the area.

The autonomous underwater vehicles come with a variety of challenges, like working under ice, having long range capabilities, and being able to dock at an underwater station and transmit data without human interference. The project could be one of the ways the military will replace the aging North Warning System radar line, built in the 1980s, that currently keeps an eye on the North, watching for ships, missiles, and other threats.

The military has brought in civilian organizations for the scientific work. The government has a contract with Ocean Networks Canada, which runs the VENUS and NEPTUNE sensor arrays — giant underwater “laboratories” off the coast of British Columbia that monitor marine life and ship noise and perform other monitoring on the ocean floor. Ocean Networks Canada scientists are currently exploring a technique to lay ice-resistant cables underwater, as well as examine other sites in the Arctic for their suitability for ocean observation systems.

Richard Dewey, associate director at Ocean Networks Canada, says observatories in the Arctic like the one being tested at CAUSE present an essential opportunity for scientists to get measurements over long periods. “The Arctic isn’t just there in the summer when it’s convenient for our research. We want to know what the Arctic is doing all year round,” said Dewey.

The sensors being tested for CAUSE are works in progress, a test of how to work in an extreme environment. Some equipment has been left in the ocean over the winter, and among the tasks the team will perform is to recover the equipment and check how it has fared.