Pascale Bourbonnais

In March 2014, Fednav became the first shipping company to employ drones, or Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAV), for ice reconnaissance on a commercial voyage. The Umiak I, one of Fednav’s three powerful icebreaking bulk carriers, used a variety of video-equipped drones to scout ahead of the vessel in the ice-covered waters of the Labrador Coast.

The goal was to provide the captain and officers with detailed real-time visual information on the local ice conditions.

Fednav Limited is a Montreal-based international shipping company. Its principal activities include the transport of bulk and general cargo worldwide. Since the Company’s very early days, the Arctic has played a vital role in Fednav’s success. Fednav in turn, has played a pivotal role in the development of innovative transportation solutions for the harsh Arctic conditions. As such, the company is widely recognized in Canada and internationally as a pioneer in Polar shipping.


Enfotec, a Fednav subsidiary and industry leader, has for more than 20 years specialized in providing advanced ice imagery and analysis to vessels operating in difficult ice conditions. Enfotec is also the developer and distributor of IceNav™, a shipboard navigation system used by many types of vessels operating in ice-covered waters worldwide. This system allows mariners to access and use satellite imagery and up-to-date ice and weather information. It also incorporates enhanced marine-based radar for the detection of sea ice.

In collaboration with Dizifilms, a Canadian leader in the commercial UAVs industry based in Beloeil, Quebec, Enfotec seeks to improve ice information available to the ship’s crew in order to optimize the vessel’s routing. With advances in recent years in the quality of information derived from satellite and radar images and conventional ice charts, the use of unmanned air vehicles for ice detection allows for the immediate capture of subtle ice features such as ridges, leads, and fractures. The UAVs deliver critical high-quality, short-range visual observations in real-time, allowing navigators to see beyond the normal horizon for strategic navigation. As a result, the crew has access to additional tools to help them make decisions for safer and optimal routing through the ice.

The backdrop for the application of this emerging technology was the Labrador Coast. The coast experiences heavy winter conditions very similar to those experienced in the Canadian Arctic - thick first-year ice that is heavily deformed under wind-induced pressure and remnants of multi-year and glacial ice embedded in the ice cover - which pose great challenges for navigation. Avoiding zones of severely deformed or pressured ice can save thousands of litres of fuel, thereby contributing to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and decreasing the operational cost of the voyage.

In the near future, Fednav and Enfotec plan to take this project further by having drones onboard the Nunavik through the Northwest Passage, in September 2014, as well as in the Hudson Strait during a winter voyage in 2015. In the long-term, Enfotec seeks to develop a methodology for the integration of drone imagery into regular route planning for winter voyages in heavy ice conditions.


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