Hi-tech fix in the works to help RCN avoid marine mammals

Navy News / January 4, 2022

By Peter Mallett

The welfare of marine mammals is a constant concern for the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN). Thanks to Defence Research and Development Canada’s (DRDC) recent equipment testing, a new technology will improve the RCN’s ability to detect and avoid marine wildlife.

A team of researchers launched the surf-board shaped Data Xplorer, a solar-powered ocean drone, into the ocean near Esquimalt, B.C., on November 23.

The goal is to detect marine mammals by towing a passive hydrophone array and recording or sending back data to a command centre. If whales are detected, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) can use the information to pause, delay or relocate operations to avoid them. 

“The best strategy to reduce the risk of harm to marine mammals is avoidance, and also the development of new automated technology to improve the monitoring of sea life,” says Major (Maj) Dugald Thomson, a Royal Canadian Air Force officer currently on secondment to DRDC as its Air Liaison Officer. 

The ocean drone, developed by Victoria-based Open Ocean Robotics, spent a day sailing near Chatham, Discovery and Trial islands, recording underwater sounds. The automated processing on board the vehicle detected baleen whale moans and Pacific white-sided dolphin whistles. These detections will be manually verified after the trial. 

Maj Thomson says the Data Xplorer has the potential to deploy at sea prior to military exercises. The RCN would not own or operate the drone, instead contracting out a pre-exercise sweep of a specified area to Open Ocean Robotics.

Aside from passive sonar array data, the Data Xplorer has a 360-degree camera; a weather station that collects oceanographic atmospheric information such as wind speed, temperature and barometric pressure; a wave sensor; a multi-beam depth sounder to gather ocean depth and topography information; and additional sensors that can be outfitted.

So far, the company has built three prototypes that can transmit the information to its shore command centre via satellite uplink or a cell phone connection.  

Open Ocean Robotics is working closely with JASCO Applied Sciences to develop the autonomous patrol capability. DRDC, meanwhile, is developing a decision support app to process and integrate data captured by a multitude of sources including un-crewed platforms like the Data Xplorer. The app would also provide decision support for a ship command team to manage the risks of at-sea operations. They plan to prototype the app in-house over the next two years, says Maj Thomson.

“Once we are done evaluating and developing all of this, we will have a project that we can hand off to the Air Force and Navy so they can implement and put it out to contract.”

Before that can happen, further testing on the Data Xplorer needs to be completed. Phase two testing is planned for late February or early March 2022 at the Canadian Forces Maritime Experimental Test Ranges at Nanoose Bay, B.C.

Protection of marine mammals is part of the federal government’s Ocean Protection Plan. It specifically focuses on three endangered cetacean species: southern resident killer whales, St. Lawrence belugas and North Atlantic right whales, which may be impacted by anthropogenic noise such as seismic surveys or active sonar use.

The military is actively working to mitigate its impact on ocean-going wildlife. The solution lays in automating marine monitoring, says Maj Thomson, and having that information fed to a central place for instant access by the crew of a ship or aircraft.

“This research is applying advances in passive sonar technology to alert decision-makers when whales are nearby.”

Maj Thomson hopes the new technology is a game-changer for military operations.