DARPA to invest in new technologies through Assured Arctic Awareness program

darpaThe Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a research agency housed within of the U.S. Department of Defense, is looking to develop new remote sensing technologies in order to monitor the Arctic both above and below the ice and enhance regional maritime security. DARPA tends to support high-risk, high-reward projects with a futuristic bent. It has funded endeavors such as self-driving cars, weapons systems, and prosthetic limbs.

For its Assured Arctic Awareness program (AAA), DARPA has budgeted $4 million to award to researchers with ideas on how to harness the difficult northern conditions to their technologies’ advantages. Awards will range from $250,000 to $500,000 for 6 to 9 month efforts, and testing will occur in laboratories simulating the Arctic environment.

DARPA is looking outside its agency walls for new ideas. John Kamp, a deputy program manager for DARPA, stated in a press release, “We seek to increase the diversity of contributors, including environmental research organizations, academia, traditional defense contractors and others.”

With AAA, DARPA is primarily concerned with developing technologies for under-ice and surface awareness. Under the sea ice, DARPA is especially interested in anti-submarine warfare technologies. Above the water, the agency aims to be able to track surface targets such as ships and ice. New technologies should be able to monitor a broad swath of area, such as the “entire summer ice extent or Northwest Passage.” The government has also set out the following thresholds and goals for new developments.

Metrics Threshold Goal
Coverage Area >1M km^2 >10M km^2
Endurance >60 days > 1 year
Probability of Detection >0.9 after target in coverage
area for <12 hours
>0.9 after target in coverage
area for <1 hour
False Alarm Rate 2/day 1/day
Hold Time <1 hour between detections for
24 hours
Continuous for >12 days

In its announcement, DARPA highlights distributed remote sensing (DRS) as one possible technology that could be applied in the Arctic. According to Distributed Remote Sensing for Naval Undersea Warfare: Abbreviated Version, which was published by the Naval Studies Board in 2007, DRS involves “a sensor field involving a number of fixed and/or moving nodes to conduct surveillance, detection, and localization of submarines or mines; communications links to transmit data from the sensor subsystem to a processing facility or unit; and a communications center to receive results from the processing facility or unit, to combine them with other intelligence for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and, in a time of hostilities, to cue available attack assets to locations where targets can be found more precisely and attacked or neutralized” (p. 1).

DRS and the other technologies DARPA hopes to investigate differ from many of the systems currently used to monitor the Arctic, which often rely on planes, satellites, ships and submarines. For instance, a NASA operation that’s in its fourth year, IceBridge uses daily flights from Thule and Kangerlussuaq, Greenland to Fairbanks, Alaska to survey sea ice. IceBridge requires a pilot to fly the plane across the western Arctic for a few hours a day, whereas DARPA aims to be able to monitor the Arctic autonomously and continuously, without interruption. These technologies will also differ from satellite-based remote sensing, since the actual sensors will be located in the Arctic. DARPA envisions that significant cost-savings could be achieved if traditional methods are forsaken given the vast distances in the Arctic that make the region expensive for manned missions to study.

Based on the agency’s announcement, it seems that the U.S. is preparing for a more militarized Arctic without actually sending its troops and ships there, let alone its mothballed icebreakers. Unmanned detection systems, robots, and distributed remote sensing are preferred over expensive manned platforms and bases. Whereas Canada is busy building its High Arctic Research Station and Nanisivik Naval Base and Russia is investing in new types of equipment for civilians and soldiers to use up north, the U.S. is investing in more futuristic remote surveillance technologies. If the Arctic remains a place where the military situation generally remains on the defense and no offensive warfare capabilities are needed, then DARPA’s investments could play out in America’s favor. New technologies could have civilian applications, such as maritime safety and sea ice monitoring, whereas a naval facility is less flexible unless it is built with a dual civilian-military purpose in mind.



Mia Bennett

Mia Bennett is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and School of Modern Languages & Cultures (China Studies Programme) at the University of Hong Kong. Through fieldwork and remote sensing, she researches the politics of infrastructure development in frontier spaces, namely the Arctic and areas included within China's Belt and Road Initiative. Read Mia Bennett's articles

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