By Brian Dunn

It looks like something out of the movie Jurassic Park, but the ARKTOS Craft offers a solution to many of the challenges facing northern shipping and search and rescue (SAR) operations where thick ice and/or shallow water are often impediments to normal day to day operations. In essence, it’s a lifeboat that can travel on ice and is much more versatile than a hovercraft.

Manufactured in Surrey, BC, the ARKTOS’ unique design enables it to operate up to a 34-degree incline from water to ice and operate through ice fields, side slopes, steep grades, muskeg and even quicksand. The craft consists of a permanently linked pair of sandwiched composite hulls or units. Each unit is independently powered by its own diesel engine. A hydraulically powered articulation arm links the two units which can operate at independent angles, making it extremely versatile. On ice or land, it moves on a set of tracks, while in water, jet propulsion provides the required thrust. Controls for both units are located in the front unit.

The craft has insulated cabins for increased chances of survivability. If one unit gets flooded the craft will stay afloat and passengers can transfer to the other unit. They can be equipped with breathable air in case of hazardous gas or smoke and can also be equipped with a water spray system for travel through fire on water.

The company’s original name was Watercraft Offshore Ltd. which began operations in 1982 when founder and current President Bruce Seligman was sent over from the United Kingdom to develop an amphibious lifeboat for Gulf Oil Canada that could evacuate personnel in temperatures as low as -50C. In 1984, the company demonstrated the craft’s capabilities to both the Canadian and U.S. Coast Guards and oil industries from both countries. Based on the positive reception it received, full-scale production was funded by the major oil companies, as well as the Canadian government. The company’s first sale was to the Canadian Coast Guard in 1989. Two of the craft were planned to be on the Polar 8 icebreaker which was never built. The second sale was made to China in the early 1990s for seismic survey work where temperatures can reach +40C. To date, over 20 craft have been sold globally and are operating in the Beaufort Sea, North Caspian Sea, Bohai Delta in China and the Alberta Oil Sands.

Evacuation is still the primary role of the craft which changed its name to ARKTOS (Greek for polar bear) in 1986, but its mandate now includes oil spill response, amphibious firefighting, geophysical surveys, search and rescue, and disaster response around the globe. Other applications include pipe-laying, ice management, ice road construction, ship to shore duties, port support, amphibious ferry service and tours from cruiseships.

There is a 32-tonne version approved by the US Coast Guard capable of seating a combined 52 passengers in both units or carrying 5,000 kilos of cargo through severe terrain and up to 10,000 km of cargo in open water. A larger 50-ton model, approved by Transport Canada, has seating for 75 passengers and a 70,000 lbs towing capacity currently being used in Fort McMurray.

A newer version, a 100-person self-righting craft is being developed for offshore platforms and may be useful for the Arctic and Antarctic cruiseship industry, according to Mr. Seligman. In addition to carrying heavy loads, the ARKTOS can tow equipment such as amphibious barges, disabled boats, life rafts and oil spill booms. It can also transport snowmobiles, rigid inflatables or ATVs to rescue areas under challenging conditions, noted Mr. Seligman. “It can be transported on an icebreaker, but it can operate where an icebreaker can’t.”

A smaller air transportable craft has been designed for the military and Coast Guards. A droppable version that can be transported in a Hercules aircraft or airlifted by a Chinook helicopter is being considered. In addition, a patrol craft complete with living quarters has also been designed.

The ARKTOS is ideal for the shipping industry where heavy ice can prevent delivery of cargo or oil supplies to remote communities, as was the case in Nome, Alaska, a few years ago, said Mr. Seligman. Cargo can be offloaded onto an ARKTOS that can negotiate treacherous ice and shallow water. In the event of an oil spill, the craft can tow booms and bladders to recover the oil. And the craft only needs one person to operate it after a four-day training course. With 18 patents and several thousand components and on-board systems, the ARKTOS would be very difficult to knock off, said Mr. Seligman who describes himself as an inventor and comes from a family of engineers.

While sales have been slow recently due to depressed oil prices, a lot of the company’s revenue comes from servicing the craft and leasing contracts for seismic surveys. With a price tag of over $3 million, the biggest challenge to boosting sales is budget constraints, according to ARKTOS Vice-President Darlene Seligman. “That and a lack of understanding of its versatility. The Canadian Coast Guard is already operating in the Arctic, but this craft would greatly improve its capabilities.

“Because we don’t have any competitors, the fact that we are a sole source supplier scares governments away. They don’t want to put their name on a contract. The Navy says it does not operate on land and the Army says it does not operate on water, but this vehicle operates on both, so it can fill the gap. The U.S. Coast Guard is interested in it for its new icebreaker program, but the decision-makers always seem to get moved around.”

When Shell Oil recently pulled out of Arctic exploration, ARKTOS lost a contract potentially worth $30 million, according to Ms. Seligman. The company may get some orders from the new Polar Class icebreaking program as the Canadian Coast Guard has asked the company to respond to its Request for Information.

Ms. Seligman recently travelled to Washington to attend the 2017 Sea-Air-Space Exposition which brings together the U.S. defense industrial base, private-sector companies and key military decision makers for an annual educational, professional and maritime based event. But with the U.S. Congress in flux, the most promising contracts are being negotiated overseas for an evacuation craft and a large working craft.