“The world is coming to the Arctic,” Rob Huebert told an audience at the Munk Centre in Toronto in March. The associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary observed that although “the Arctic is transforming in ways we really don’t understand,” northern nations and others are reshaping their military and defence requirements to prepare for whatever comes next.

“[Canada] needs surveillance and enforcement capability,” he stressed during a national videoconference hosted by the Canadian International Council.

Yet for all the talk of building ports, adding naval and Coast Guard ships, and expanding the military’s presence through more Regular and Ranger forces, the new resources will offer only a fraction of what is likely needed to provide situational awareness in the waters and on the land of the High Arctic.

If it is unreasonable to expect manned systems to survey such vast terrain, one alternative might be the use of unmanned – and autonomous at that.

With the success of drones in Afghanistan and Iraq, unmanned vehicle systems (UVS) have become the hardware of choice at the moment and there may be a practical application for their deployment in the Arctic.

The Canadian Forces recently solved a short-term UVS deficit with project NOCTUA – MDA’s IAI-built Herron is now operating in Afghanistan – but it is still developing JUSTAS (Joint Unmanned Surveillance Target Acquisition System), a project to identify the Air Force’s medium altitude, long-endurance UVS requirements for domestic and foreign operations.

BGen Perry Matte, director general of Capability Development, acknowledged last year that “Canada will probably be the most challenging environment for us when it comes to [UVS],” noting the extreme environments of maritime and Arctic domains.

One company eyeing JUSTAS is BAE Systems, which has flown its autonomous Herti aircraft for the British RAF in Afghanistan and is in the process of working with the Ministry of Defence on its next generation, a medium to high altitude, long range ISTR system called Mantis.

During a presentation at UVS Canada, Peter Findlay, a business development manager for BAE, stressed the autonomous reconnaissance and surveillance capability of Herti. He called it a “strategic intelligence gathering platform” with a proven track record of performing route reconnaissance, battle damage assessment and maritime surveillance, all integrated with air base operations.

If an autonomous system, by definition, should be able to operate with little human interaction, with both the aircraft and payload reacting to what it encounters, Herti goes further than most.

While an Avro Vulcan thundered overhead at last year’s Farnborough Air Show, Herman Claesen, head of military air export programs for BAE, described the company’s adoption of the emerging technology. Anticipating the decline in defence budgets and the demand for greater capability delivered in a shorter timeframe, BAE opted to exploit the benefit of not having a pilot in the cockpit. By removing almost all human responsibility for flying the aircraft and operating the payload, it has allowed operators to focus on decision-making around the data the system delivers. It also ensured that onboard systems do much of the imagery analysis, searching within defined parameters for information of interest to the analyst and reducing the amount of bandwidth needed to send a constant stream of data. “That’s not just autonomy in terms of the aircraft flying by itself; that’s also autonomy in terms of how the payload works,” Claesen said. “Because we are doing an awful lot of processing on board the aircraft, we are not clogging up the bandwidth, so the operators on the ground are getting things that matter much quicker.”

Route reconnaissance may not be a key to Arctic surveillance, but Herti’s ability to fly the same route at the same angle repeatedly means it is able to detect anomalies and compare changes quickly. Shifting seas or blankets of snow might pose problems for such technology, but that does not mean ships or persons of interest would not stand out.

Claesen also noted that because of BAE’s history in aircraft design, “you end up with a product that…can be used in a wide variety of environments and operational scenarios. We are clearing the system for worldwide use.” And that could include sub Arctic temperatures.

On the final afternoon of UVS Canada last November, after two days of listening to presentations on the latest in unmanned system developments, LCol Alex Tupper made a last tour of the exhibit hall. As he watched model aircraft being dismantled, the head of DAR 8 (Director of Air Requirements) responsible for JUSTAS admitted that while the prospect of an autonomous system is attractive, the aim of the current project is to address the CF’s needs through proven technology. Flipping a switch and turning Arctic surveillance to autopilot may be a step to far just yet.