Russia eyes nimble quadcopter for a warming arctic

In the not-too-distant past, it was the impossibility of the arctic that gave it a tantalizing appeal. Northwest passages were imagined and then smashed to smithereens. The 20th century saw the arctic utilized as a hiding place for submarines or the ground underneath the planned flight paths of nuclear warhead carriers. Now, as the world warms, militaries that ring the once-icy domain are building tools for potential conflict among whatever remains of the ice caps.

Russia, for example, is building a quadcopter that can operate from chilly seas.

Designed to operate with a hybrid gasoline and electric engine, this new SeaDrone quadcopter is built for the kinds of missions understand by small drones across the world. With a goal of flight times between 40 minutes and three hours, a combat radius of roughly 60 miles, the drones’ payload will be primarily its cameras, capable of both electrico-optical and thermal imaging, and a radar system.

“Today, Russian military and the merchant fleets are investing in capabilities that would allow them to see beyond the horizon in unpredictable Arctic conditions, and control the Arctic waterways and territories,” said Samuel Bendett, an adviser at the Center for Naval Analyses. “The Russian military has already upgraded, modernized and even built new bases, airports and facilities up north, and ISR for that region is very high on the Ministry of Defence’s agenda.”

What sets SeaDrone apart is a waterproof body, allowing it to operate from vessels that would not normally have the deck space for even a small vertical takeoff vehicle. An ability to launch from, land in, and be recovered out of the water could make it a valuable naval tool, and not just a nautical novelty.

“This is not the first drone designed for the Arctic,” said Bendett, who has documented several other Russian arctic specimens. “Key for all of them is the ability to navigate in the fast-changing and often-dangerous Arctic conditions.”

One confounding variable of arctic operations is that drone magnetometers can falter at northern latitudes, as documented both by hobbyist experience and independent research. The SeaDrone makers promise the drone itself has software that understands this discrepancy and accounts for it automatically.

As the seas warm, and the arctic becomes not a barrier to travel but a shifting ocean of ice-laden paths between nations, drones are likely to accompany the vessels put forth into those rising seas. Magnetic oddities, once a modest problem of wildlife photographers or climate researchers, could take on greater significance, and require drones that can adapt through it.

Or at the very least, drones that can float instead of sinking.

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