Canada and a slew of other countries are eyeing up the Arctic and the valuable resources it contains, and in the fight for sovereignty, surveillance is key. If the Canadian Armed Forces gets an upgraded satellite network in the north, it says that drones could send back more real-time information about what is going on up there.
But the projects haven't been funded yet, and there's another obstacle in the way: they need new ground stations to operate properly.
While the mission and capabilities of unmanned aerial vehicles in the Arctic is classified, they first flew up north to huge media attention in 2014. At the time, the military said it was testing the drones for applications such as surveillance, or responding to emergencies.
The military has a plan to use satellites to enhance the video information that drones send back to us—and also to stop other countries exercising sovereignty claims by using drones themselves as the Arctic melts due to climate change.
The two planned satellite networks—the Tactical Narrowband Satellite Communication Project (TNP) and the Enhanced Satellite Communication Project (ESCP)—are set to launch in 2018 and 2022, respectively. Drones would send and receive simple communications like commands and flight information through both networks, with video flowing through the ESCP because it has more bandwidth.
"There will be two types of terminals: the ground station segment to build, and the portable terminals the soldiers carry with them," Lieut.-Col. Abde Bellahnid, the project director for the Canadian Forces' satellite communications, told Motherboard.
"It's a little complicated. We have to build anchor stations. That's something that has never been done before, so it is going to take a little bit more time."
The Canadian Arctic lacks a lot of the infrastructure we are used to relying on, further south. Most of our telecommunications needs are covered by geosynchronous satellites that hover over spots on the equator to transmit television broadcasts, internet communications, and long-distance telephone calls.
While geosynchronous satellites can reach parts of the north, they can only go so high before the signals are lost.
"Despite the fact that geosynchronous constellations would allow the CAF [Canadian Armed Forces] to operate nearly everywhere around the world up to approximately 70° this leaves the poles uncovered," the Canadian Department of National Defence said in a statement to Motherboard. (70° is the latitude of Victoria Island, in the Canadian Arctic archipelago). "Ultimately there is a need for a different satellite solution to provide communications coverage of Canada's domestic interests in the Arctic."
The Canadian Space Agency planned to partly solve this problem with the Polar Communication and Weather mission (PCW), a partnership with the military to provide weather reports and Arctic communications in one satellite package. Media reports indicate this partnership stalled due to the project's high cost, estimated at $4.5 billion.
"A year ago we removed the weather from this project and we started the Enhanced Satellite Communication Project," Bellahnid explained. The new satellite is expected to cost $1.5 billion, just a third of what PCW was supposed to cost.
As for TNP, it will be a cheaper bet for Canada even though the project overall is expected to cost $2.4 billion. That's because each international partner will cover the cost in proportion to how much they use the satellite, Bellahnid said.
TNP may use an existing US Navy network called the Mobile User Objective System (sharing time between Canada, the US, Norway and Denmark). If that negotiation fails, TNP will send up payloads on geosynchronous satellites that will launch in 2018.
If there's going to be a battle for sovereignty with drones up north, Canada should get involved. But it's going to take a big financial commitment to get there.