A new, high-resolution map of the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway will help environmental officials to better monitor the road’s impact on freshwater fish habitats.
Members of the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration recently completed the massive map of the all-season road to the Arctic – and a large stretch of the adjoining Dempster Highway – using more than 60,000 photographs taken from the sky by drone.
Andrew Wentworth, chief pilot and deputy program manager for the mission, said it was one of the largest non-military remote sensing projects of its kind, and one of the first in the Canadian Arctic.
“There were a lot of firsts that were checked here. Hopefully, we’ll get to do it again in the following years,” he told Cabin Radio.
The SeaHunter, a 136-kilogram drone used to take the photographs, was the first long-range, remotely piloted aircraft to fly from Inuvik’s Mike Zubko Airport in 2019. Its camera took photographs about once a second.
Wentworth said it took months of preparation to get approval from airspace regulators to fly the unmanned aircraft. He noted the Inuvik airport is busy in the summer time, meaning operators had to coordinate between flights.
Those weren’t the only challenges. Once the flights were completed, Wentworth said, analyzing the photographs and combining them into a 3D mosaic “took a lot of computing power and trial and error.”
Federal agency Fisheries and Oceans Canada commissioned the map as a means to safely monitor potential changes to freshwater fish habitats near the road.
The 138-kilometre two-lane highway, which opened in November 2017, crosses habitats for fish species including cisco, flounder, grayling, whitefish, burbot, coney, trout, and jackfish.
‘It’s very pioneering work’
Carolyn Bakelaar, who ran the project for the federal department, said in 2017, Transport Canada was looking to try out beyond visual line of sight technology – the use of drones to see distances outside the normal visible range of pilots. Fisheries and Oceans Canada then got involved in the project and chose the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk highway because it spans a remote area and is also located near an airport.
“We wanted to see what we could see,” Bakelaar explained. “We weren’t sure what a drone flying however many 1,000 feet above the highway, what we could actually see.”
Fisheries and Oceans Canada is currently processing the data. While the photographs don’t show culverts in great detail, Bakelaar said the map can show changes in the colour of water, impacts on streams from sedimentation, and changes in elevation.
Bakelaar said this project will impact how organizations gather information about ecosystems in the future.
“The importance of this is that we proved that it could be done. And in that sense, it’s very pioneering work,” she said. “I think that the potential for the future is sort-of untapped.”
“To me, that’s really exciting.”
Bakelaar said they hope to replicate the SeaHunter’s flight path and create similar maps in the future to compare changes to the road, fish habitats, and permafrost. That will allow environmental officials to take action to prevent further negative impacts.