The Northwest Passage is becoming increasingly navigable. This is good news because it offers a route some 5,000 nautical miles shorter than that between East Asia and Europe via the Suez Canal. For shipping companies this means immense savings, but these savings come at the cost of enormous risks for shipping traffic. A German-Canadian team of researchers, co-initiated by Fraunhofer, aims to change this through a research project called »PASSAGES« (Protection and Advanced Surveillance System for the Artic: Green, Efficient, Secure). With this project, the team is laying the groundwork for safe navigation through the icy waters.
This is no easy task, as the route is not only challenging due to numerous bays, islands, unmapped shoals and narrow passages, but also the obstacles of drift ice, extreme weather conditions and other ships that sometimes send incorrect position reports and sometimes none at all. The system has to provide reliable information on all of these factors.
The problem is that there is little data available because there is no infrastructure for sensors and communication. The entire route encompasses an area larger than Western Europe with a sparsely populated coastline. But even if there were sufficient data, it would first have to be processed into useful information for ship crews and other users.