New Tech to Improve Comms, Remote Sensing in the Arctic

By Vivienne Machi
A Coast Guard cutter follows a Canadian icebreaker through the Franklin Strait.

Photo: Coast Guard

The United States and partner nations are exploring new remote sensing and communication technologies to improve situational awareness and connectivity in the Arctic region.

Operating without sufficient communications tools is “arguably more dangerous in the Arctic than in many other places, given the vast distances, risky operating conditions, small population and very limited infrastructure,” according to a 2018 Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center report titled, “Identifying Potential Gaps in U.S. Coast Guard Arctic Capabilities.” The center is operated by the RAND Corp. under a contract with the Department of Homeland Security.

Operators in the Arctic currently rely on voice communications via existing radios and some satellite capabilities, including the Iridium Communications constellation, which operates in low-Earth orbit and provides global voice and data satellite coverage. The Navy’s mobile user objective system communications satellites can also assist with coverage in the Arctic, but they are not yet available to the Coast Guard, according to the report. Cell phone communications are extremely limited, and data transmission is even more challenging.

Communications capabilities in the Arctic were described as “woefully inadequate” by sources cited in the report, which offered several possible avenues for remediation, including installing additional infrastructure and leveraging the growing number of commercial communications satellites in polar orbits.

Communications and weather are major capability gaps for Arctic operators, said Charity Weeden, president of Lquinox Consulting, a Silver Spring, Maryland-based space and data management consulting firm.

Weeden previously served as a navigator for the Royal Canadian Air Force and performed Arctic patrols and open ocean surveillance in a CP-140 anti-submarine and maritime surveillance aircraft, the Canadian variant of a P-3 Orion. She also worked on U.S.-Canada military space cooperation.

Before satellite phones were installed on patrol aircraft, getting a signal to connect with command and control was a perennial struggle in her navigator role, she noted.

“Whenever we performed Arctic patrols, we had to give an update of our position to make sure we call back and say, … ‘We’re all good, we’re on task,’” she said. The ionosphere frequently affects high-frequency radio waves and disrupts communications, she added. 

“When I would go out to send my position report, I would just get static. And so I would spend the bulk of that time … trying to hail the operations center to tell them where we are and that we’re safe,” Weeden said. “The day I flew and the satellite phone was installed … I conducted my call and they heard me loud and clear. And that was a relief.”

Communications in the Arctic could still be improved, she noted. More wideband coverage in particular could help unmanned systems or support search-and-rescue missions.

The Coast Guard currently uses some satellites, sensors and various fixed assets for domain awareness, navigation and weather information, the operational analysis center report noted. They include: the International Cospas-Sarsat system, a satellite to facilitate search-and-rescue missions; personal locator beacons; various sources of satellite imagery and products; automatic identification systems on ships; land-based receiving stations operated by the Marine Exchange of Alaska; and the long-range identification and tracking system and sensors on Coast Guard cutters and aircraft.

The Coast Guard is pursuing multiple efforts to increase and improve situational awareness and safety for Arctic operators, according to the service’s acquisition directorate for research, development, test and evaluation’s fiscal year 2018 project portfolio.

One project is described as a “a robust cyber-secure network” that would provide improved communications to the region. It would feature cybersecurity protection against threats such as hoax callers. It would also have the ability to automatically switch between commercial satellite and high frequency communications, and the ability to transmit virtual aids to navigation.

The Coast Guard’s Research and Development Center is expected to deliver a report on this effort in July, followed by testing through early 2020, according to the portfolio report. The project is expected to be completed by September 2020.

The service has also begun evaluating the potential use of CubeSats. It will launch its first two systems, dubbed the Polar Scout spacecraft, this summer for use in search-and-rescue missions in remote polar regions, said Adm. Paul Zukunft, the outgoing Coast Guard commandant. Zukunft will vacate the position in June, and Vice Adm. Karl Schultz has been nominated to replace him.

“Right now, our communications hover just above the horizon on the high latitudes,” Zukunft said at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The United States Coast Guard is investing in CubeSats to improve our persistent coverage for search and rescue for distress beacons.”

The Polar Scout satellites will be able to detect an individual in distress and relay that information quickly to a command center that would then dispatch an aircraft or vessel to the given location, said Dale “Buck” Larkin, Raytheon Missile Systems small space programs manager, in an interview.

The platforms were built under the direction of the Air Force’s Operationally Responsive Space Office, now renamed the Space Rapid Capabilities Office, as part of a program that sought to quickly deploy systems when needed, he said. Millennium Engineering served as the prime contractor for the Polar Scout, with Rincon Research and Space Dynamics Laboratories developing the communication payload. Raytheon served as the integrator, Larkin said.

A mobile CubeSat command-and-control ground station was stood up in Fairbanks, Alaska, last fall, and a second ground station will be established in July in New London, Connecticut, according to Coast Guard documents. Polar Scout demonstrations are planned to run from October to July 2019, with the goal of developing a CubeSat technology roadmap for the service by the end of the year.
CubeSats are affordable and accessible enough now that agencies — such as the U.S. Coast Guard or the Canadian Department of National Defence — could potentially take advantage of the technology to address their own capability gaps, Weeden noted.

Arctic partner nations are also investing in new sensor technology to increase situational awareness in the region.

The Defence Research and Development Canada — or DRDC — an agency in Canada’s Department of National Defence, recently funded a $2.1 million project for the University of Waterloo to develop a new quantum radar technology for increased situational awareness.

The new technology will use a sensing technique called quantum illumination to help detect and receive information about a given object. It leverages the quantum principle of entanglement, where two photons form a connected pair that sends one photon out to a given object, while retaining the other member, according to the university.

This technique could be “a gamechanger” in the way that electromagnetic sensing is done, said Peter C. Mason, chief scientist for electromagnetic sciences at the DRDC. “With electromagnetic sensing, everything is about the signal-to-noise ratios,” he said. “For years and years and years, we have been working on incredibly clever methods of pulling that signal out of the noise,” such as manipulating the waveforms or the type of signal that was transmitted. “With these quantum entanglements, we are actually able to say in the majority of cases that what’s coming back is noise; it’s not related to the signal that we sent out,” he noted.

The significant land mass and limited population across the region mean few natural opportunities for ground-based surveillance, Mason said. Space weather such as solar radiation storms and other electromagnetic interference can also hamper traditional remote sensing methods.

“Surveillance techniques that would work down closer to our latitudes tend not to work well in the North,” he said. A typical geostationary satellite is not viable to perform surveillance over the Pole, because “that’s not how the physics work,” he added.

The technology also offers the ability to emit a lower signal, which could help prevent operators from being detected by adversaries, he added.

The project is still in an early development phase, but it could prove useful as the United States and Canada look to replace the North Warning System — a joint early-warning radar system with 54 stations operated and maintained by the North American Aerospace Defense Command — by 2025, he said. “There’s a long way to go yet, but I’m terribly impressed with the work that the scientists and engineers are doing in this field.”

One of the first problems to be solved is how to generate entangled photons in sufficient volume to provide field-ready results, he said.

“In the physics labs right now, people know how to generate entangled pairs. But if you’re doing a lab experiment, you don’t necessarily need hundreds of millions of them, you might only need tens or twenties of them,” Mason said. The University of Waterloo team found promising ways to produce a much higher flux of entangled pairs, he added.

There is also the challenge of operating the technology in real-world conditions. “It’s one thing to get these things to work in the lab in very controlled circumstances, but put them out where it’s cold and windy or in space, that’s a whole new ballgame,” Mason said.

Situational awareness becomes even more important as ice continues to melt in the Arctic region, opening up shipping routes and encouraging more tourist vessels.

Global shipping there is forecast to double by 2021 and then double again by 2030, said retired Rear Adm. Timothy Gallaudet, assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, and acting undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

The Defense Department has been exploring aerial, surface wave and undersea unmanned systems. It has already used these assets to perform marine mammal surveys “with great efficiency,” Gallaudet said at the Navy League’s annual Sea-Air-Space conference in National Harbor, Maryland. It took two scientists a mere 20 minutes to analyze data gathered by drones on a leopard seal population; without the systems, it typically took six scientists around five hours to gather and analyze that same amount of data, he noted.

“That’s the kind of efficiency and savings we’re going to see with unmanned technology, so there’s some great opportunity there,” he added.

Zukunft noted that an ice-free Arctic could come as early as 2030. Today, less than 5 percent of the region is charted to “21st-century standards,” he added. “What if a vessel transiting encounters a seamount that’s not charted, and now we have a vessel run aground up there?”

The service is leveraging new technologies that use virtual automatic identification systems buoys to help chart more waterways, said Michael Emerson, marine transportation systems director and senior Arctic policy adviser for the Coast Guard. “We can create a virtual buoy in a position that will show up on your atlas or your electronic chart,” he said at the conference. The service is working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Marine Exchange of Alaska and the Finnish government to explore this technology, he said.

Gallaudet said the development of unmanned multibeam echo sounders could also improve charting knowledge. “It’s not an if, it’s a when,” he said.

– Additional reporting by Stew Magnuson

Topics: Maritime Security, Battlefield Communications, International

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