Evaluating satellite systems to improve connectivity for cutters underway in the Arctic. Testing a mobile hotspot popular with hikers to see how well it works in one of the most remote places on earth. Developing a standard method of measuring ice conditions to aid in navigation.
This is some of the research being done during the 2021-2022 Polar Regions Technology Evaluation (PRTE).
The PRTE supports scientific study designed to improve service capabilities at high latitudes. Historically, it has been conducted annually on the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, when the 420-foot icebreaker deploys to the Arctic to execute Coast Guard missions, enhance maritime domain awareness, and increase response capabilities across the Arctic domain.
This year, however, the PRTE is expanding to include research in the Antarctic and year-round polar operations. The first expedition kicked off in mid-July when the Healy set out from Seattle. The second will take place on the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star this winter as that heavy icebreaker travels to the South Pole during operation Deep Freeze. The Polar Star left Seattle to begin that voyage in mid-November.
As traffic to the Arctic increases due to trade, access to national resources, and even tourism, more research in polar areas is essential, says Shalane Regan, program manager at the Coast Guard’s New London, Connecticut-based Research and Development Center (RDC), which runs the PRTE. Regan spent time aboard the Polar Star earlier this year studying ways to improve life and work afloat. “The Polar Regions Technology Evaluation effort ensures the Coast Guard has, and will continue to have, the tools it needs to carry out its mission in this critical area,” she said.
So far, the Healy is about three months into its current journey, one that took it through the Northwest Passage and back to the U.S. in Boston. Research will continue as the cutter proceeds down the East Coast and through the Panama Canal to return to Seattle.
Along the way, scientists from the RDC are partnering with private industry, government agencies, and other organizations to study operational conditions in the Arctic, develop new ways of doing things, and evaluate emerging technologies.
Here’s a deeper dive into the projects:
Improving Connectivity and Communications
Defense contractor MITRE continued to evaluate the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS). MUOS is a UHF narrowband satellite communications system used by the Department of Defense (DoD). Its five orbiting satellites are 22,000 miles from the earth and operate like a cellular network in the sky. At its most effective, MUOS can deliver voice, video, and data communications via radio, although It does not have the quality of the internet in your house.
MUOS only works in the lower reaches of the Arctic between 66 and 74 degrees. Drop out of view due to the curvature of the earth and the satellites are no longer usable. That’s one reason Coast Guard researchers are increasingly focusing on low earth orbiting (LEO) satellites for the polar regions, according to Jon Turban, project manager for RDC’s High Latitude Communications Project.
The first LEO option the RDC tested on this trip was Iridium Certus. This globally available broadband satellite service does work in the Arctic, though it can be slow. On this trip Coast Guard researchers set up an Iridium Certus terminal on the Healy and tested the type of bandwidth, stability and speeds they were getting while underway.
RDC staffer Paul M. Harvey, who conducted the tests on the cutter, said he was encouraged by the results. “The testing provided a fantastic view of a real-world scenario, not only in data collected but also in troubleshooting,” he said. “I think our next steps should be to test other similar equipment for an in-depth comparison and assess what has the ability to provide the best solution for the Coast Guard missions.”
One possibility is Starlink, which the Coast Guard began testing in October. Starlink is an LEO satellite internet constellation operated by SpaceX, which is designed to provide internet access worldwide. The RDC will conduct the military’s first ever Starlink test at sea. Since the company only launched its first satellite covering the Arctic in September 2021, researchers will look at connectivity in general on the Healy’s return trip, proceeding down the East Coast and up the West Coast it returns to Seattle.
The team already has a terminal on board, so evaluating how Starlink works at sea will be useful, Turban noted. “The big thing is going to be testing it on a ship that rocks and rolls and see how that affects speed and performance,” he said.
The Coast Guard is also testing a tear-shaped device that acts as a mobile hotspot and is designed to improve connectivity while in remote areas with degraded communications. The Somewear Solution is a military version of a commercial device currently used by hikers and travelers to connect to satellite networks. RDC researchers are evaluating its capabilities in polar areas where connectivity is typically most challenging.
RDC researchers also provided the Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence, Arctic Domain Awareness Center (ADAC), with data for the Arctic Ice Condition Index (ARCTICE) Project. Efforts were primarily focused on ice laden waters of the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, which abut the US Arctic Extended Economic Zone.
The project’s goal is to create a numerical rating system to communicate ice conditions that are relevant to the capabilities of different vessels. The index will combine marine vessel size, gross tonnage, hull strength and polar classification. This will be weighed against the current forecast ice on a planned route. Researchers will model available Arctic region ocean current sea-ice presence, thickness, movement and ridging factors. ADAC is also establishing a database which will include both current and predicted future ice conditions.