Navy surveys the sub-Antarctic sea floor

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Location(s): Invercargill, New Zealand, Macquarie Island, Australia

Topic(s): Laser Airborne Depth Sounder (LADS)

The Royal Australian Navy Laser Airborne Depth Sounder (LADS) Flight on the tarmac at Invercargill, New Zealand. (photo: )
The Royal Australian Navy Laser Airborne Depth Sounder (LADS) Flight on the tarmac at Invercargill, New Zealand.

The Laser Airborne Depth Sounder (LADS) Flight is currently deployed to Invercargill in New Zealand to undertake survey operations over Macquarie Island, a 34km long World Heritage listed island that lies approximately halfway between Australia and Antarctica.

Macquarie Island is part of Tasmania and hosts an Australian Antarctic Division research station.

The aim of the survey is to improve knowledge of potential dangers to ships visiting the island, with a focus on the area surrounding the station itself.

The LADS aircraft is a modified Dash 8-200 fitted with a laser system to measure the sea floor depths in coastal waters. 

The Royal Australian Navy’s LADS capability is unique amongst bathymetric LiDAR as the Dash 8 gives the extended range required to reach remote locations such as Macquarie Island. At a distance of 650nm to the SSW of Invercargill, this extended range is a necessity. 

Executive Officer, Lieutenant Cheyne Colley, said the improved data will be used to update the existing nautical charts used by all vessels navigating in this sensitive area.

“The Royal Australian Navy has responsibility for charting approximately one-eighth of the world’s surface, including much of the Southern Ocean,” Lieutenant Colley said. 

“The charts that are updated from the data captured by LADS will ensure safer navigation and greater environmental protection by reducing the risk of a marine accident.”

The LADS flight will fly as many as eight sorties from Invercargill, with each sortie lasting up to seven hours. When conducting survey, the aircraft will fly at approximately 600 metres, with the LASER emitting through a special window in the belly of the aircraft.

“The unit is unique to any Navy in the world. The technology was developed in Australia and uses a scanning laser which is mounted in the aircraft to collect hydrographic survey data and depth information,” Lieutenant Colley said. 

“The survey system employed by the LADS Flight is particularly suited to coastal and dangerous reef areas where it would be less safe for our survey ships to operate.

“With the airborne system, we can bring safety and efficiency to large and complex areas of the ocean. Where LADS is suitable, we are able to cover vast areas with excellent economy of effort in relation to surface-based survey vessels,” Lieutenant Colley said.

The LADS Flight is based in Cairns and can survey more than 40 square kilometres per hour and depth of more than 50 metres in good conditions. 

More information on LADS Flight is available at: