The U.S. government has put out a request for proposals centered on a robust surveillance system in the Arctic. The $4 million program is meant to give it a clearer picture of operations, military and otherwise, in a region that is rapidly losing ice cover because of climate change. NOAA

Government leaders in Northern Hemisphere countries are mentioning melting ice in the Arctic more than ever in their strategic plans, but the region’s remoteness makes it difficult for any of them to know exactly what their neighbors are doing up there. That’s why officials at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, have put out a call to industry experts to design a system of sensors that can monitor traffic through the area and warn the agency about looming threats.

Specifically, Darpa is requesting an unmanned technology that is low in cost, rapidly deployable and environmentally friendly. It must be equally adept at detecting threats approaching across the tops of glaciers, flying through the sky and snaking beneath thick slabs of ice. The agency said the system could one day be relied upon for a major military mission.

Designing such a system is no small feat because, as Darpa has noted, there is very limited access to communications networks and electrical grids in the region. Therefore, the agency stipulated the sensors must run for 30 days without refueling. Solar power probably won’t work since the region goes dark for months at a time each winter -- and it is obscured from the sun by clouds on 85 percent of summer days. In addition, the system must endure temperatures that drop to -85 degrees Fahrenheit.

Darpa intends to grant a cash award of $500,000 to $750,000 each to one or more applicants to build out a design, and the agency is committing an initial $4 million to the program. It has been working on developing the concept for such a system since at least 2012.

The pressure to install a system is rising -- Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to have his sights set on the Arctic, where he is beefing up military operations while laying the greatest claim to the seafloor of any country to date. Meanwhile, the U.S. lags behind in critical measures of Arctic military readiness, such as Coast Guard infrastructure and the size of the nation’s fleet of submarines and icebreakers, according to a Darpa presentation in 2012.

The new surveillance system will likely have roles outside strictly military missions, such as in monitoring drifting ice that poses a threat to shipping. Companies that believe they have what it takes to build a premier Arctic monitoring system can send their ideas to Darpa before the deadline April 14.