Australia has announced it will be spending millions on drones and automated robotic vehicles for exploration and research on Antarctica, as well as to provide surveillance of what observers say is increased Chinese activity around the continent.
Australia, which lays claim to about 42% of Antarctica, is concerned by what some observers say has been China’s increasingly assertive activity around the continent – something it will monitor with new drone and helicopter deployments. Prime Minister Scoot Morrison said Tuesday the government had cleared $584 million in spending on those aerial craft, as well as robotic vehicles that will be used to keep an eye on Chinese vehicles and personnel in the area. The assets will primarily assist researchers working to learn more about the inhospitable, often inaccessible areas of territory it controls.
“The money we are investing in drone fleets, helicopters, and other vehicles will enable us to explore areas of East Antarctica’s inland that no country has ever been able to reach before,” Morrison said in a statement. “My government will continue to back our world-class scientists and expeditioners with the necessary funding and resources, because their research on the frozen continent and in the Southern Ocean is critically important to Australia’s future.”
Nearly $43.6 million of the total will be spent on UAV fleets and other autonomous vehicles that will be able to reach and map otherwise inaccessible or environmentally fragile areas of East Antarctica. The Australian governmental statement also said those drones, which will be equipped with an array of sensors and feed real-time video footage to monitors – something it called an “Antarctic eye” that, among other things, will keep watch of China’s activity in the area.
Both Australia and China, as well as the US and Russia, are among the 54 nation signatories to the Antarctic Treaty that manages the collective, peaceful use of the continent.
Emphasis of the spending and use of the additional tech and vessels will be largely focused on the scientific and conservation research on the continent that Australia has been active in. But increasingly frequent and aggressive activity by China around Antarctica – especially in fishing – is also part of Australia’s decision to deploy drones for surveillance purposes as well.
“We need to ensure that the Antarctic remains a place of science and conservation, one that is free from conflict, and which is protected from exploitation,” said Environment Minister Sussan Ley. “This investment, together with the window of discovery that is already being opened… will reflect Australia’s commitment to our sovereignty in the Australian Antarctic Territory and its leading voice in the region.”