James A.R. McFarlane, executive VP of International Submarine Engineering, shows off parts of submarine at the company’s PoCo base. Photograph By Lisa King
Somewhere, inside the vast and inhospitable part of the world that is the Canadian Arctic, lies a mystery that spans two centuries. In 1845, British explorer Sir John Franklin led a doomed expedition to the region in an effort to navigate the Northwest Passage. But as far as historians can tell, the expedition got caught up in the ice in Victoria Strait, near Nunavut, and none of the crew, including Franklin, were ever seen again. In the years that followed, countless expeditions have been launched to try and find the lost ships, but none have succeeded.
Fast forward 170 years, and now a Port Coquitlam company is hoping its technology, developed over the last four decades right here in the Tri-Cities, will be the centrepiece of an archeological find of a lifetime. Tucked away in a non-descript commercial building on Broadway Street is International Submarine Engineering Ltd., or ISE, founded 40 years ago by engineer James R. McFarlane. The company has been building and developing autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and submarines since the 1970s, launching its first AUV operation in 1983.
The first AUVs, albeit primitive compared to modern subs, were launched not far away in Indian Arm, a body of water still used as a testing site by the company today. Since those early days, private companies and the Canadian government have used ISE subs for various operations.
The PoCo company manufactured and sold two Arctic Explorer AUVs to Defense Research and Development Canada, a member of the current expedition. The vehicles played an integral role in helping gather data and objective evidence to support Canada’s claim for expanding its sovereign continental shelf in the Arctic. These Arctic Explorer AUVs are now part of a major expedition currently in the Arctic to find Franklin’s lost ships.
The Victoria Strait Expedition, headed by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in partnership with several governmental and private organizations, will be spending part of September looking for two sunken ships from the fateful voyage. Just last week while on a trip to the North, Prime Minister Stephen Harper proclaimed the expedition would find Franklin.
James A.R. McFarlane, the founder’s son and ISE’s executive vice-president, suggested the mystery of Franklin’s expedition still carries interest to this day. “People want to know,” he told the Tri-Cities NOW. “These vessels of Franklin’s, they want to know what happened, they want to know where they ended up. They want to see if they can find anything on the bottom.” And unlike previous failed attempts to find the ships, the company feels this search could be different.
All kinds of theories abound as to what happened to Franklin’s crew. There’s speculation of cannibalism and crewmembers going crazy after the ships got stuck in the ice.
For Stephen Nishio, an electrical technologist with ISE who has been on other missions with AUVs in the Arctic, those theories are the stuff of novels. Instead, he explained there is evidence some of Franklin’s crewmembers did manage to fan out across the Arctic, interacting with Inuit people in the area.
While burial sites have been discovered, he said the most significant find was a rock cairn. The artifact included a letter that described the time Franklin died, and gave the position of two ships. By using modern technology, scientists concluded the letterwriter had the correct coordinates. “That’s one of the best pieces of information that we have to start with,” Nishio said. Even if the coordinates are right, he acknowledged finding the ships will still depend on how much the vessels moved in the ice over the years.
But the Victoria Strait crews will be armed with a piece of technology no other group trying to find the ships has had at its disposal. At more than seven metres in length, ISE’s Artic Explorer looks somewhat like a torpedo to the untrained eye. But this yellow submarine isn’t bent on destruction, but rather advancing the cause of science.
At a cost of up to $7 million, depending on the kinds of bells and whistles you want, the Arctic Explorer AUV can get to depths of 5,000 metres (16,000 feet) under the water. It can also travel up to 480 kilometres (300 miles) on a single charge.
In an Arctic expedition, the AUV is launched off an icebreaker into a hole through the ice. Equipped with the latest in sonar technology, the AUV can spend days on its own exploring the ocean, all the while collecting and storing images and data. Crews can also extract all the information and charge the vehicle while the AUV sits under water. I n one instance, the vehicle spent 11 straight days operating under the ice.
As the company’s founder noted, the key to the Artic Explorer’s success is precise navigation. “You need to have a very good navigation system on it,” James Sr. said. “Precisely, you have to be able to hit a hole more than 100 miles away.” ISE’s AUV “Thesius” proved its mettle by laying 190 kilometres (120 miles) of fibre optic cable under the Arctic ice.
This evolution of technology allowed the company to develop its Explorer class of AUVs. The AUV will locate the sunken ships by collecting high-resolution imagery of the site. While the goal is to find Franklin’s vessels, James Jr. suggested there is much more to both the expedition and what the Arctic Explorer can offer.
He said data collected by the AUV during the expedition will be scientifically valuable to the oceanographic community. “They’re getting double return on their investment,” James Jr. said. “They’re getting a really solid data set for science as well as trying to identify where Franklin’s boats are.”
Make no mistake, the proudly Canadian company, which has won numerous awards and accolades, wants its technology to be the first to lay eyes on the ships lost so long ago. “We have had a lot of firsts here,” James Jr. said. “We’ve had a lot of feathers in our hat and this certainly would be a nice one to add to the collection.”