Researchers Creating System for Safe Navigation through the Northwest Passage

A German-Canadian research team has been conducting preparatory work to develop a system for a safe navigation through the icy waters of the Northwest Passage.

A research team, coordinated by German Fraunhofer Institute for Communication, Information Processing and Ergonomics FKIE, aims at establishing a monitoring and information system that would enable ships to navigate safely through the passage in the future.

The project entitled PASSAGES (Protection and Advanced Surveillance System for the Artic: Green, Efficient, Secure) is supported by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) as well as the project partners Airbus, exact Earth, and Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada.

Wolfgang Koch, Head of Sensor Data and Information Fusion at FKIE, said that enabling the safe navigation through the passage is not an easy task because the route is challenging not only due to the presence of a number of bays, islands, uncharted shoals and narrows, but also because of drift ice and extreme weather conditions.

In addition, vessels sometimes do not record their positions or (in cases like those of illegal fishing vessels) record false positions. The system has to provide reliable information about all of that.

According to Fraunhofer, one of the problems is that there is little data available, because of the lack of infrastructure in sensor and communication technology. The entire route is larger than Western Europe and is sparsely populated. Even if there were sufficient data these would have to be processed into information which would be useful for stakeholders such as ship crews, Fraunhofer said.

The researchers are addressing all of these difficulties by developing concepts about which technology can gather what information and where and how it can be fused.

“The difficulty is to bring together very diverse and inaccurate data in order to provide for instance decision support for ship captains to decide on which route to take when,“ Koch said.

The researchers said they need to create algorithms for the fusion of sensor data.

The first thing to do is to tap data sources in the harsh climate zone. The Automatic Identification System (AIS) can be used, which reports among other information ships‘ current position. In addition, there are satellite images. Even old sonar systems from the Cold War era could be resurrected, the researchers said.

However, a high-resolution view by means of which captains could safely pilot through the water does not yet exist. Koch is therefore still hoping for another data provider – the passive radar.

Ships could navigate safely through the Northwest Passage in the future.

This technology uses the electromagnetic pollution from mobile stations near the coast. Receiving stations will tap into this and gain information about ships and ice blocks – their size, position and speed. In this way, Koch said that large areas can be monitored. Other possibilities are unmanned vehicles that gather information below and above water.

As the polar ice caps are melting, the Northwest Passage is becoming navigable for longer periods of the year. Ship traffic, however, still bears hazardous risks, according to Fraunhofer. The goal of the project is to change this.

The sea route is said to be important for the federal government of Germany, due to its economic benefits.

“For a country dependent on exports, such as Germany, shorter sea routes are of great importance,“ Koch said.

 “Compared to the route between East Asia and Europe via the Suez Canal, the route via the Northwest Passage is about 5,000 nautical miles shorter, which means enormous savings for ship owners,“ Koch added.

The researchers hope that the project would evolve from a research into a development project. An operational system would be a great asset for shipping companies, coast guards, maritime authorities as well as for insurance companies, the researchers claim.

Referring to insurance companies, Koch said that they could calculate premiums for the ships that are to be insured. After the tricky route is made manageable through safe navigation, ship owners would not have to spend so much on insurance coverage.

It will take at least a decade until the navigation system is ready to be launched, according to Fraunhofer. Over these years, the route is expected to become progressively ice-free and economically navigable for shipping traffic.

“As dramatic as global warming is, we try to get at least something positive out of it,“ Koch said. 

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