Canada Adds Drones to Its Fight With Russia for the North Pole

James Yungel/NASA

Send in the drones!

The cold war between Russia and Canada for acquisition of the North Pole just heated up. Between August 18 and 26, Canada sent a team from the Department of National Defence on a first-of-its-kind mission to test how unmanned technology performs in Arctic conditions.

The team carried out experiments using two unmanned ground vehicles and one unmanned air vehicle. According to Simon Monckton, the mission's lead scientist, "The project team deployed vehicles into situations that might be dangerous or difficult for a Canadian Armed Forces responder at a remote location to support search-and-rescue and hazardous-material operations." Other functions tested included surveillance and communication capabilities.

Though only there for testing, this marks an escalation of weaponry Canada has had in the Arctic since Putin called for Russia to increase its military presence in the area last year—a reaction to Canada's submission of a partial application to the United Nations to extend its nautical borders to include the North Pole.

International law dictates that the Arctic's five surrounding countries (Canada, Russia, the U.S., Norway and Denmark) own the area 200 miles out from their respective northern coasts—meaning the North Pole belongs to no one. But the unclaimed region has always been highly coveted.

Not only would the North Pole represent a territorial gain to the acquiring country, but its sea floor is resource-rich and is thought to contain nearly a quarter of the world's undiscovered energy resources. Additionally, as the Arctic is impacted by climate change and the ice melts, the natural gas and oil will be easier to extract and the possibility opens up that the area can be used for activities ranging from fishing to transport.

With the threat from Russia looming, the drone experimentation puts some muscle behind Canada's posturing. It ensures Canada's own ability to function in Arctic conditions, as well as its NATO allies.

But Canada and Russia's one-upsmanship has also taken less conventional forms. In 2007, Russian scientists used a miniature submarine with a robotic arm to plant a Russian flag on the seabed of the North Pole. In 2008, the Canadian government declared Santa Claus a Canadian citizen.

In the days following the drone-testing, two Canadian Coast Guard vessels arrived at the North Pole to continue research for its U.N. application. Crew members continued the symbolic gesturing.

Santa read letters from the crews' children:

Santa took time to read letters from the crew's kids! CCGS Terry Fox. #CCGArctic

— DFO_NL (@DFO_NL) August 29, 2014

Crew members did the ALS ice bucket challenge at the North Pole:

Kyle Hennebury and Barney Noseworthy doing the FIRST EVER North Pole ALS #IceBbucketChallenge #LSL #CCGArctic

— DFO_NL (@DFO_NL) August 28, 2014

And Canada's prime minister iterated Canada's claim to the North Pole on Twitter:

1/2 Exciting to see CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent and CCGS Terry Fox reach Canada’s North Pole #CCGArctic

— Stephen Harper (@stephenharper) August 28, 2014

2/2 Canada’s Arctic is unequivocally Canadian sovereign territory; we proudly and strongly support it.

— Stephen Harper (@stephenharper) August 28, 2014

While drone testing represents a departure from symbolic tactics, it has yet to be determined if Canada has plans to go all out and weaponize its Arctic drones. Monckton said, "Unmanned system offer many potential benefits to the Canadian Armed Forces, but we must carefully study the strengths and weaknesses of these technologies before moving forward.

Canada's ambitions are clear, but at least they are not trying to colonize a place full of people.