Transport Canada’s plan to patrol the Arctic with a drone has been delayed by at least two years, partly because the unmanned aircraft is so large it’s considered a kind of missile and falls under complex arms-control rules.
The $39.5-million project, approved June 2015, was supposed to see a drone flying patrols by March next year.
But CBC News has learned the so-called UAV — unmanned aerial vehicle — won’t be delivered until at least April 2020, or almost five years after the project got the green light.
The biggest snag is an international arms-control agreement, known as the Missile Technology Control Regime or MTCR, which Canada and 34 other countries have adopted.
The regime was created in 1987 to halt the spread of potential weapon systems, such as missiles, that can deliver nuclear warheads and other weapons of mass destruction. UAVs were later added to the list.
The non-proliferation rules kick in when a payload is more than 500 kilograms, and the missile or UAV can travel more than 300 kilometres.
Transport Canada is planning to acquire a large drone with cameras and other sensors that fall within those parameters, and the department may be required to purchase it through another MTCR-signatory government, such as the United States, rather than directly from a manufacturer.
That would be a more complicated procurement process — no longer a standard competitive tender, but a sole-source, government-to-government deal such as through Washington’s Foreign Military Sales program.
“Most of the unmanned aircraft systems Transport Canada will consider fall under the Missile Technology Control Regime, which adds complexity to the procurement process,” department spokeswoman Caitlin Jackson said in an email.
The systems Canada is considering are designated under so-called Category I of the MTCR, technology that is highly restricted. “Category I items are subject to an unconditional strong presumption of denial, regardless of the purpose of the export, and are licensed for export only on rare occasions,” says the regime’s website.
The department had expected to issue a tender in April for an Arctic system, which includes a UAV, communications links, ground-control stations and sensor packages. But Jackson says the revised procurement process won’t be completed until March next year.
A February 2017 briefing note for Transport Minister Marc Garneau, obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act, warns that “feedback from industry with regards to the project schedule has revealed that TC’s (Transport Canada’s) project timelines for … manufacture and delivery after contract award are too optimistic.”
The drone for Transport Canada is expected to fly about 500 hours a year, supplementing manned aircraft already patrolling the Arctic, and will watch for oil pollution, ice formation, illegal fishing, and help with search and rescue.
Operating in the Arctic will be tricky, since the unmanned drone will have to be piloted over the horizon, beyond the visual line of sight, with limited satellite support in the North.
In the meantime, Transport Canada has signed a $25,000 contract with Carleton University in Ottawa this year to produce a statistical model and simulation tool to determine the risk of potential collisions between any UAV and manned aircraft. That work is still in progress.
And the department has hired Arctic UAV Inc., an Iqaluit firm, on a two-year contract ending March 31, 2019, to test-fly drones under conditions expected in the Arctic.
This $300,000 project began last month with tests on a new range at Alma, Que., using a medium-size SeaHunter drone from a U.S. manufacturer. The range is a restricted airspace that allows the safe testing of drones beyond visual line of sight.
Arctic UAV Inc. will conduct its next series of tests in September at a location yet to be determined.
Called a success
Jackson says the department is still evaluating the results of the initial Alma test but “initial indications are that it was a success.”
Transport Canada is ultimately planning to acquire a medium-altitude, long-endurance drone able to fly between 10,000 and 30,000 feet for as long as two days straight.
An April 2016 internal briefing note, also obtained under access-to-information, set out the problems of Arctic flying, including “the shortage of readily available satellite communications links in Canada’s far north, as well as the affordability of this type of communications technology; severe meteorological conditions including high winds, icing conditions and low temperatures; a lack of significant ground infrastructure, such as paved runways and aircraft hangars.”
Michael Byers, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia, says Transport Canada may also find flying an Arctic drone expensive compared with its manned aircraft.
“Drones of that kind are not inexpensive to operate,” he said from Vancouver. “Drones are not necessarily a less-expensive option.”