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Wanted: Autonomous vehicle for 2,000 kilometre mission under sea-ice

Reward: 500 000 Swiss francs

The World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) and the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation have launched a new Polar Challenge to develop an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) capable of a 2,000 km mission under the sea-ice in the Arctic or Antarctic.

The aim is to stimulate innovation into new monitoring tools for the Polar oceans, to complement satellite observations and ultimately expand scientific research capabilities and climate services in both the Arctic and Antarctic.

The Polar Challenge – with a prize of 500 000 Swiss francs – is being announced during the Arctic Science Summit Week, 12-18 March in Fairbanks, USA.

“With the Polar Challenge, we hope to open new horizons in under-ice navigation, endurance and environmental monitoring,” said WCRP Director David Carlson. “This is vital to improve our understanding of the polar oceans which are key indicators of environmental change and which have major influences on global climate.”

“The reliability of long-term climate change outlooks in Polar regions is severely limited by the scarcity and cost of in-situ systematic observations of the sea-ice and below,” emphasized WCRP Senior Scientist Michel Rixen.

“New generation AUVs such as underwater gliders provide a potential cost-effective option for scaling up observing networks for the Polar regions. The Polar Challenge seeks to stimulate innovation in new technology to help scientists unravel some of the mysteries hidden under sea ice,” said Mr Rixen.

The WCRP and the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation hope the competition will promote technological innovation towards a future cost-effective, autonomous and scalable observing network for ice-covered ocean regions based on a fleet of such platforms, similar to what ARGO, a global network of more than 3,500 free-drifting floats, has accomplished
for the open ocean.

AUVs are already used in an operational context around the world in ice-free zones, and they surface on a regular basis to get a GPS fix and to transmit environmental data. They are able to collect crucial and high quality oceanographic observations (such as temperature, salinity, chlorophyll and acidity) at much lower cost compared to conventional
observing systems.

But under the sea-ice, the operating range, positioning and data transmission represent major challenges for current underwater vehicles. The integration of recent progress regarding power systems, and navigation and communication techniques for example, would expand the scope of applications of such vehicles, currently mainly limited to the
open ocean.

The Polar Challenge will be at least three-fold, in terms of under-ice navigation, endurance and environmental monitoring. It will include a set of specified and required scientific measurements. The challenge offers new potential to develop data sets of ice and under-ice properties in unexplored territories. Eventually these vehicles will help scientists monitor ocean heat, fresh water inputs and exchanges, and ocean acidification in those regions.

The WCRP is inviting contributions from all relevant stakeholders to this important and exciting initiative. This effort advances WCRP research priorities in polar oceans. It will also contribute to the World Meteorological Organization’s Polar initiatives and is expected to benefit the wider stakeholder community (weather, ocean, environment, safety, transport, energy, tourism, etc).

The World Climate Research Programme is sponsored by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO.

For further details, including competition rules and registration, see the Polar Challenge website.

For further information, contact Michel Rixen.