The wind was howling at speeds of up 14 meters per second as an unmanned aircraft was put on the launch ramp roughly a hundred meters from the tower. Among the entourage standing beside the fisheries minister for the occasion was a stand-in for the Minister of Education. The intention was for her to take over the levers controlling the drone once it was well up in the air.
It didn't work, due to the weather not playing along with the delegation from the ministries and partners in the new Arctic Center for Unmanned Aircraft (ASUF) during its official opening Tuesday morning, and the symbolic flight eventually had to be canceled.
But in the future Ny-Ålesund will play an important role in the development of the use of so-called drones. ASUF is a collaboration between the Northern Research Institute, The Arctic University of Norway (UIT) and Lufttransport, with Aspaker presiding over the opening of the test center. The airport in Ny-Ålesund has a hangar and a control room for the drones, which are already being used for limited collecting of environmental data. Aspaker said there are several areas she believes drones can play an important role in monitoring and management of the Barents Sea and the Arctic.
"We've got bigger sea areas with shared boundaries and the ice is receding Here drones can become an important supplement for monitoring," she said, adding illegal fishing and dumping are ideal examples for such activity.
"We suspect that there are still fish being discarded overboard that are not profitable," she said. "In addition to monitoring of fishing , it may be interesting in connection with algal blooms. It will be an important tool for monitoring and the exercising of fisheries policy."
An agreement for algal monitoring, counting of marine mammals and tracking pollution using unmanned aircraft was signed by Norat and The Institute of Marine Research on Tuesday. Norut CEO Ivan Burkow said the goal is for the center to become a major resource.
"These are Arctic conditions, they are demanding, the potential is huge and we have big ambitions," he said during a mini-seminar on Monday evening.
Burkow emphasized Norway has world-class technology, but that advantage can quickly be lost if it's not further developed.
"And that requires a little interaction," he said.
The largest drones currently have a range of 2,000 kilometers. ASUF Director Rune Storvold said he eventually envisions flights between stations and to measure the thickness of the sea ice up to the North Pole. Moreover, there is ample space in Svalbard and enormous potential for unmanned aircraft use in the high Arctic.
"First, we have good access to airspace," he said. "Second, there is a research station with lots of activities where we see that unmanned aircraft can help to obtain data. So we should do everything from measuring snow and snow performance, sea ice, glaciers, flora, fauna, and during search and rescue operations."
Heavy equipment related to the use of unmanned aircraft will be eventually be permanently stationed in Ny-Ålesund. Research efforts by Norway in the settlement have stagnated over time, a trend ASUF is trying to reverse with the addition to Kings Bay. UIT has joined the project as a majority shareholder in Norut and Rector Anne Husebekk makes no secret about her thoughts that it's fun to open such a center in the world's northernmost settlement.
"We can use our pure research environment and and the research groups who in some way can benefit from unmanned aircraft at this center," she said. "It's fun to be a part of the whole chain from basic research to applied research, and in addition industry can be thrown in, so it is absolutely brilliant."
The other government minister in Ny-Ålesund for the opening kept a lower profile than during many previous visits, being there to watch and learn. But Minister of Justice and Public Security Anders Anundsen (Progress Party) said he is uncertain when the drone at the facility will become part of Norway's emergency preparedness in the north.
"They have great potential, both because they have great range and because they can travel around with infrared cameras and contribute to search and rescue, as a future tool for police and monitoring of events."
Is there a timeline for drones to be part of Norway's preparedness?
"It is difficult to say," Anundsen said. "This is an exciting project where will test out drones in many different contexts, but when the technology is good enough to put it into use is difficult to say. I think this is part of our future."
Knocking on the door
Husebekk said the U.S. aerospace company Northrop Grumman Northrop is knocking on UIT's door and expressing an interest in a collaboration on the drone project. UIT officials have already met with Northrop Grumman, which is mainly known for producing military equipment, and there is an interest in further discussions.
"Where we must of course be very careful is that we do not move into a military area," Husebekk said. "But I think that it is not primarily the kind of aircraft that we are developing in this center, but the technology that we will use to monitor things."
"The aircraft are not good enough," she added. "We can get into a technological cooperation so that aircraft can be developed to be better, so I do not see that to be in conflict. But we must sort things out."
The collaboration must be kept well away from Svalbard, since the Spitsbergen Treaty prohibits military activities.
At the same time, the partners in ASUF are busy exploring opportunities for the research and Geir Arne Sørensen, director of Lufttransport, said during the seminar they should not close the doors to some, but rather have international ambitions.
"Yes, we are talking with them, so we'll see what we can do," Husebekk said. "It may be that they are interested in a cooperation because they see that this is the future."