In terms of environmental monitoring, the drones will measure salinity and temperature, for instance, which will help scientists create more accurate models to predict future rates of melting.
But the plans are also meant to address the "security implications" of the opening up of the Arctic waters, according to the Navy's Arctic Roadmap, updated in 2014 to adapt to changing Arctic conditions. Part of that plan, which spans 2014-2030, is to increase the number of ships in the region, Martin Jeffries, science advisor to the Office of Naval Research, or ONR, told Military.com.
"Due to the significant retreat of sea ice, previously unreachable areas have started to open for maritime use several weeks each year. The predicted rise in oil and gas development, fishing, tourism, and mineral mining could alter the Region’s strategic importance as Arctic and non-Arctic nations make investments," the Roadmap says.
The two aspects of the are connected, as the rate of melting will determine how many more ships are deployed in the region and how quickly. The drones will focus specifically on what is known as the marginalized zone — where the solid ice shelf meets the ocean — the frontier of the Arctic ice.
“What we’ve been seeing in recent years is a much greater retreat of the sea ice cover in the summer time such that in the last eight years, we’ve seen the eight lowest minimum ice extent values in the arctic in the satellite record going back to 1979,” said Jeffries.
— J. Patrick Malone (@JPatrickMalone) March 8, 2015
Drone Designers? Talk to DARPA.
One underwater drone currently in use has been the Seaglider — a 110-pound, 2.8-meter submersible whose audio sensors can reach a depth of 1,000 meters where they record their precise location with audio "pings" and help build an accurate picture of temperature and salinity changes.
“We can deploy robotic technologies for sustained autonomous observing over many months — to observe the ocean, the ice and the atmosphere. Doing this with high navigation accuracy makes the scientific value of the data much greater,” said Jeffries. “By the end of the summer in 2014, the science team had deployed over 100 robotic platforms in the ice and the ocean.”
— IDST (@idst36) March 4, 2015
But the US Defense Department is hoping for much more advanced drone technology in the future and the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA recently announced an open call to developers for unmanned vehicles with sensors to monitor the area and alert authorities to potential problems in the region.
DARPA has up to $4 million dollars ready for those who might produce unmanned vehicles that meet its needs. The agency wants "environmentally friendly" vehicles that both fly and swim and which can go up to 30 days without recharging since access to the electrical grid is restricted in the Arctic.
Competition Heats Up as Ice Melts
The push into the Arctic is also a reaction against Russian moves to secure their interests in the Arctic and the Russian Navy's similar plans to increase their own presence in the region. Not only will the thawing ice shelf open up shorter, lucrative shipping routes, but also oil and gas reserves of great, though not precisely known, value.
Russia’s revised military doctrine, signed by President Vladimir Putin in December 2014, for the first time ever named the protection of national interests in the Arctic among the main priorities for its armed forces in times of peace. Part of that has been to resume a permanent military presence and Russia has reopened a military base on the Novosibirsk Islands.
Though the extent of the natural resources in the Arctic is currently unclear, oil and gas explorers are hoping the new thawing frontier will be a boon to their industries. Estimates are that the Arctic could hold as much as 13% of the world's undiscovered but recoverable oil, with that figure rising to 30% for gas.
There have already been disputes about how far a country's influence extends among the five Arctic nations — Canada, Norway, Russia, Denmark through Greenland, and the United States through Alaska. Under international law those countries' Exclusive Economic Zones are limited to 200 nautical miles off their shores.
Russia has claimed the ocean floor as an extension of the Siberian continental shelf all the way to the North Pole, where an underwater expedition symbolically dropped a Russian flag on the sea bed in 2007.