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Canadian technology slashes cost of detecting iceberg hazards


Oil and gas exploration companies and transport vessels now have access to a more affordable and efficient tool to guard against icebergs in harsh ocean environments. Developed through LOOKNorth (Leading Operational Observations and Knowledge for the North), the Altimeter Iceberg Detector (AID) has already been used to help with oil exploration and a round-the-world yacht race.

“This was a classic case of technology pull,” says Desmond Power, VP Remote Sensing at C-CORE, the St. John’s NL-based not-for-profit R&D corporation that received NCE funding in 2011 to launch the LOOKNorth CECR. “We had a client who suggested this as a more cost-effective way to monitor icebergs, but to be honest, we were skeptical. Satellite altimeter data had never been used for this purpose before.”

Companies have relied mainly on satellite-based Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), an expensive service that can detect icebergs as small as five metres across but requires more logistical planning. SAR costs as much as $5,000 per image, covering areas up to 250,000 sq. km. and must be programmed ahead of time to image desired locations.

Altimeters continuously observe the Earth’s surface as they orbit, so data is widely available and costs relatively little. Designed primarily to model ocean circulation and to record and monitor sea level and climate changes over time, altimeter data is optimized to monitor wide areas.

LOOKNorth worked with these features to develop a new tool, AID, that can quickly locate individual large icebergs (150-200 metres across) and clusters of icebergs (greater than 300 metres) in large areas of ocean, then estimate their size and direction of drift. This is especially valuable for frontier areas such as the Canadian Arctic.

LOOKNorth’s technology development means companies can now use AID to identify hot spots that may require a closer look with SAR. “Our premisegf is that where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” says Power.

What makes this data attractive to industry is that it’s free, plentiful and quick to access. AID draws on a continuous stream of data available from many European and U.S. satellites, as well as some 20 years of archival data that can be used to help determine the location and engineering specifications for offshore structures, based on the presence, persistence and type of icebergs.

AID’s first commercial application was providing iceberg surveillance to the racing yacht Maxi Banque Populaire V during its record-breaking circumnavigation of the globe in the Southern Ocean, December 2011 to March 2012. Had the yacht relied exclusively on SAR data, it would have cost between 35,000 and 75,000 euros. Using a combination of SAR and AID, C-CORE was able to drive down the cost to 5,000 euros – a savings of about 90%.

AID was used again in 2012 to support drilling operations near the Falkland Islands, and later in 2013 in the same area to characterize ice conditions.

Listening to industry

C-CORE’s remote sensing team began working with LOOKNorth’s R&D team, led by senior research scientist Dr. Igor Zakharov, in the fall of 2011 to develop the algorithms and data-processing methods for altimeter data to separate iceberg “signatures” from background noise and to eliminate false detections. One month later, AID was born.

LOOKNorth’s Executive Director, Bill Jefferies, credits the success of the technology to C-CORE’s close ties with industry. He is consulting with C-CORE’s board, which includes representatives from companies like Chevron, Suncor and ExxonMobil, on how to make AID more widely available.

“All our ideas for technology development start with consultations with industry to understand their needs,” says Jefferies. “We don’t do science for the sake of doing science. It has to be grounded in a well-articulated need, on the part of industry or local communities.”