Ice-thickness measurement drones

The Northern Sea Route (NSR) has been used since at least the 1930s as a shortcut shipping lane between Asia and Europe, to reduce the travel distance by as much as 40% compared with going through the Suez canal.[1] The passage is, however, dangerous because vessels can get stuck in the ice, and current transits see only bulk carriers shipping cargo of low relative value taking the risk.[1]

Currently, sea-ice thickness estimates are generated using modelling techniques based on data from satellites.[2,3] However, for the purposes of navigation, these estimates are insufficiently precise and unreliable due to different qualities and characteristics of ice.[4] Furthermore, satellite data is remotely processed and not easily accessible by captains for decision-making.

Aerial drones, stationed on the bow of a vessels and equipped with electromagnetic and infra-red sensors, could allow firsthand observations, thickness measurements, and sea-ice mapping in a less expensive way than airplanes or helicopters.[5,6] A further benefit of having drones in the Arctic would be the increased ability to collect additional sensor data like temperature, humidity, wind speed or ice movement to provide them for climate change research.

When will aerial drones escort very large container vessels through the Northern Sea Route?

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[1]Hansen, C. Ø., Grønsedt, P., Graversen, C. L. & Hendriksen, C.,(2016). Arctic Shipping: Commercial Opportunities and Challenges. CBS Maritime.
[2]National Snow & Ice Data Center, (2019). SOTC: Sea Ice
[3]Labe, Z.,(2020). Sea Ice Thickness Data Sets: Overview & Comparison Table
[4]Heygster, G., Hendricks, S., Kaleschke, L. Maass, N., et al. (2009). L-Band Radiometry for Sea-Ice Applications (Technical report). Institute of Environmental Physics, University of Bremen.
[5]Weisberger, M., (2016). Drone's-Eye View: Flying Vehicles Could Monitor Ice in Remote Regions
[6]Ringeisen, D., (2018), Measuring ice and snow thickness: Poke it with a stick

By Matthew J. Spaniol