Surveys with Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs)

Recovering the AUV after its survey mission under the sea ice, after being deployed off the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent (Photo: Don Glencross, DRDC)

Collecting data in the Arctic is challenging as harsh weather conditions can impede research done from ice-camps or from ships. The solution? Autonomous Underwater Vehicles or AUVs that can navigate under thick ice layers on their own – without the need for remote controls - and can find their way back to a moving home-base located at an ice camp or a ship.

What is an AUV?

An AUV is a vehicle which travels underwater unmanned to perform tasks, including carrying equipment or the computer systems needed to perform specific duties in underwater areas. AUVs are able to perform their duties “autonomously” or on their own by using a sophisticated computer as an electronic brain to perform a variety of duties such as navigate, travel, and explore under the water. In the case of the UNCLOS research project, AUVs were used to collect high resolution bathymetric data of the seafloor in some areas.

Canadian-made Innovation

These AUVs are unique in the world, specifically because of their innovative technological capabilities to enable them to work in the cold and remote Arctic waters. The two AUVs were built right here in Canada by International Submarine Engineering Ltd. (ISE) located in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia. The AUVs were retrofitted to meet specifications provided by federal scientists to be able to work under thick ice layers where remote controls do not work, be able to find their way back to a moving home-base (missions start and end on an ice floe, which can drift as much as 10 km in a day) and be modular to be transported to remote ice camps. 


AUV Stats

  • Operates under thick sea ice on its own to collect data
  • Variable ballast system designed to operate at up to 4000 m depths
  • Manoeuvres like an airplane with a propeller pushing it forward from its stern, “flying” through the water
  • Can be disassembled and flown in a Twin Otter aircraft to remote locations
  • Has a range of 440 kilometres
  • Powered by batteries
  • Weighs 1800 kilograms
  • Has multiple systems for navigation, ballasting, communication, and surveying
  • Uses an innovative system of chirps to find its way home and inform operators on its current state
  • Pre-programmed with over eighty different responses to potential situations it may encounter beneath the surface

Surveying Under the Sea Ice with AUVs

The AUVs made their maiden Arctic voyage in 2010 at an ice camp near Borden Island, released under 2 metres of thick sea ice. After three long days of waiting with no contact from the AUV, it showed up on the scientists’ computer monitors. The AUV had traveled more than 300 km in three days, and found the ice camp that had drifted more than 30 km from its original starting point during the mission.  During this three week research expedition, the AUV traveled more than 1000 km and dove to depths greater than three kilometres – both of which are world records.  In addition to this great feat, it successfully completed 450 km of critical bathymetric measurements.

The AUVs were also deployed off of the CGGS Louis S. St-Laurent in 2011 and 2015, marking the first time an AUV had been deployed off an ice-breaker in the Arctic Ocean. This is a remarkable feat in that it opens the door for this novel method of data collection for future scientific research.

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