The high-tech hunt for Canada’s history in the Arctic

The high-tech hunt for Canada’s history in the Arctic

Canada Foundation for Innovation funded technology leading the search for the remains of the Franklin expedition
September 4, 2012

From coast to coast to coast, Canada’s status as an ocean nation has never been more important to its identity, history and economic growth. The Ocean Technology Lab at the University of Victoria is creating next generation technologies to perform research and analysis in the depth of Canada’s oceans. These technologies are currently in use by the team hunting for the remains of the Franklin expedition in Canada’s Arctic.

Sir John Franklin was a British naval officer and well-known explorer who led a 128-man expedition through Canada’s Northwest Passage in 1845. Franklin and his crew were lost after their two ships became icebound near King William Island in Nunavut. The two ships, Erebus and Terror, have never been found.

Colin Bradley and his team at the University of Victoria are contributing to the search for the long-lost ships used in the Franklin expedition. They have built a seawater lab where they can test and adapt technologies in an actual ocean environment.

“Our first CFI award enabled us to build infrastructure that has been essential to our mission to develop and test ocean technologies,” says Bradley, who is Director of the Ocean Technology Lab.

The lab specializes in underwater vehicles and acoustic communications, making them experts in the deployment of autonomous underwater vehicles, which have on-board navigation, computer and data-gathering systems.

“Now that we have the infrastructure in place, we’re looking at projects that are beyond pure science and pure engineering — we’re looking into more applied work,” says Bradley.

The need for this advanced underwater technology became real this year. With the renewed interest in finding the remains of the Franklin expedition, the Canadian Coast Guard and Parks Canada called on the Ocean Technology Lab for support. The lab has supplied the team searching for the remains of the Franklin expedition with a specialized underwater vehicle equipped with a mix of software and sensors to help map the ocean floor while searching for the whereabouts of the Erebus and Terror.

“To be able to use this technology in partnership with the archaeologists at Parks Canada has been fascinating,” says Bradley. “There is so much history here that is relevant for Canada, the UK and other countries. It’s captured people’s imagination.”

This is a great opportunity to demonstrate the value of the Ocean Technology Lab in the field. A team of two engineers, one PhD student and one University of Victoria alumni are on the expedition to keep things running smoothly and ensure the lab’s technologies are being used effectively in a real operational setting.

The application for this technology goes beyond the search for archaeological relics. As the search for offshore oil, natural gas and mineral deposits leads to more remote locations, the Ocean Technology Lab intends to be ready with the tools Canada needs to get the job done.