‘20,000 Drones Under The Sea”; Unmanned, Underwater Drones – The Next Big Leap In Drone Warfare

‘20,000 Drones Under The Sea”; Unmanned, Underwater Drones – The Next Big Leap In Drone Warfare


“20,000 Leagues Under The Sea,” is one of the great, al-time sci-fi classic books, this one written by French writer Jules Verne in 1870; and, later made even more famous in the 1954 movie starring Kirk Douglas. Verne was visionary and was intrigued by what lay deep beneath the surface of the ocean. According to Wikipedia, “the book tells the story of Captain Nemo; and, his submarine — the Nautilus — which was considered ahead of its time, as it accurately described features on submarines which at the time — were extremely primitive vessels.”

Now, nearly a century-and-a-half later, undersea is beginning to become as crowded as the air, with unnamed, underwater vehicles, or drones (UUV’s). “At least 630 unmanned, underwater vehicles are already prowling global waters, and the trend line is undeniably upward,” wrote Kristina Lindborg, on the July 16, 2014 website The Christian Science Monitor. “The global UUV fleet is forecast to increase 42 percent — from 2014 – 2018,” Ms. Lindborg added, “and will total 825 units by 2018, led by a strong military demand,’ according to market research consultants Douglas-Westwood. “Global expenditures on unmanned, underwater vehicles is expected to total $2.3B during the next decade,” according to 2012 figures.

“The race is on to deploy and effectively use undersea drones,” says a 2014 report by the think-tank, The Center for New American Security. “At least 75 countries are investing” in unmanned systems the report noted. “While the U.S. military has thousands of unmanned systems of different types,” the report concluded, “these largely, remotely piloted vehicles will soon be replaced by increasingly autonomous systems….in all physical operating domains (air, sea, undersea, land, and space); and, across a full range of military operations,” and scenarios.

“Military use of undersea drones goes at least as far back is the mid-1950s,” Mr. Tucker wrote; but, recent technological advances and future projections paint a compelling picture that underwater military and intelligence drones are likely to proliferate as widely as those in the air above us. The country many consider to be a leader in this domain is Russia — who has been conducting secret research in this area for decades; most notably with/through the Russian Institute of Marine Technology Problems.

And, with the high cost of present-day nuclear submarines — it is not a surprise that current Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work has some interest in the promise of military underwater drones. Mr. Tucker cites a 2013 interview Mr. Work (who was at the time with the think tank: Center For New American Security) gave with The Christian Science Monitor, — “lamenting the high cost to staff, maintain, and replace manned submarines.” Mr. Work, in that interview, “forecast a winnowing number in their number in the years ahead, — down to the low 40s, or even 30s, by 2030,” Mr. Tucker wrote. “You can’t buy as many manned subs, so UUVs will be a means by which the U.S. will be able to maintain its undersea dominance — even with a smaller number of manned submarines,” Mr. Work said.

Patrick Tucker, writing on the December 4, 2014 website, DefenseOne.com, argues that “in the decade ahead, UUVs, may have the same sort of disruptive effects on militaries as their flying counterparts. More than 12 countries are [hard] at work on undersea robots…which some militaries — like the United States — use to check for mines, map the sea floor, and collect weather data. There’s no reason,” he contends, “they couldn’t be used to defend battleships from small boats; or even, carry out attacks on enemy divers. But, what will they look like?” he asks.

“Today’s most well known Navy drone is the Slocum Glider, from Teledyne Benthos, a company that this year received more than $200M to further develop the glider for the Navy,” Mr. Tucker added. “A team of researchers from Singapore, led by Jianxin Xu recently debuted a robotic eel design prototype that could signal the future of undersea warfare.” Xu argues that the glider, an inflexible, torpedo drone with rear propellers, leaves much to be desired ; and, that nature has already provided a better design.

“Anguillform [eel-like] fish consume less energy when on a long-distance journey than regular autonomous underwater vehicles,” Xu told Defense One. “They are highly maneuverable and flexible, making them more suitable than Gliders for navigating small spaces…The noiseless propulsion is another advantage,” for the military he added. “They’re less detectable than robot subs that propel themselves the same way as conventional subs.”

“Xu’s design represents a breakthrough robotic fish that effectively mimic the rather unique way that eels and other anguilliform fish swim,” Mr. Tucker wrote. “His paper describing the prototype and all the software that went into making it work, was published in the most recent of Unmanned Systems Journal. But, while it’s close to nature, it’s not the first robotic fish, nor the first robotic eel. The U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), have explored designs that look like actual sea life, such as robotic jellyfish, manta rays, tuna, and eels for years,” Mr. Tucker observed.

“With an oceanic menagerie of animals to choose from for future designs,” Mr. Tucker writes, what advantage do eels present over other forms?’ he asks. “Fish locomotion falls into three categories: thunniform, carangiform, and anguilliform. Thunniform — derived from the Latin word thunnis, or Tuna — is characterized by a wide caudal fin, (tail) movement, side-to-side in the case of fish; and, up and down in the case of dolphins and wales. Anguilliform locomotion — from the Latin word Anguilla for eel — involves wide undulations in the body. It’s also common to sharks,” Mr. Tucker writes. (Carangiform falls in between; and, is common to mackerels.) With anguilliform movement, undulations take the form of a wave that moves down the length of the animal’s body, pushing the water out of the way — from side, to side. For many years, researchers in fluid dynamics considered thunniform to be faster and more efficient, but some recent research has found that isn’t always the case.”

“Several researchers, writing in the Journal Nature, in the year 2000 — found that European eels are able to migrate from Europe to the Sargasso Sea in West Indies…on almost no food, suggesting that anguilliform swimming conserves more energy than previously thought,” Mr. Tucker wrote. Many anguilliform swimmers, like sharks, are in constant motion,” he adds, “further attesting to [their] energy efficiency. That’s a key consideration for the Navy that’s become much more energy aware in recent years.”

“The stealth factor is also a key consideration for the Navy,” Mr. Tucker observes, “designing robot fish to compete with China, or Russia. Anguilliform swimming displaces water evenly — compared to thunniform swimming (and certainly compared to traditional rear propulsion), according to 2004 analysis by George V. Lauder. He explained his analysis: “The undulatory pump mechanism (employed by the anguilliform kinematic movement) can produce more thrust at low swimming speed, and enables the body to push the water backwards more efficiently…The swimmer with kinematic movement performs the smoothest.” “That smoothness could make some sea drones less detectable than others to future highly sensitive ship sensors,” Mr. Tucker suggests.

“Eel bots can explore difficult to explore difficult to navigate reefs, hulls, and undersea geological formations in a way that other fish types can’t,” Mr. Tucker observed. But, it also strikes me that these same kind of features could also be useful in intelligence collection and special operations type missions. Xu says that future prototypes of his robot will require less and less guidance to operate. They’ll self-navigate through difficult, or dark crawl spaces, which also means fewer operators presiding over more robots, potentially making them even more cost efficient for the Navy.”

“Currently, our anguilliform fish swim by using exogenous sensing information, namely, external cameras,” Xu said. “Since we have developed a motion controller and motion library for the prototype — by installing environmental detecting sensors such as infrared, or sonar, the robotic fish can carryout tasks in autonomous manner.”

“But, the eel bots most attractive feature is adaptability,” Mr. Tucker concludes. “The same undulating movement that propels it through water can move it forward on land as well, It’s one reason why NASA was considering snakebots for future Mars missions; and, why tomorrow’s amphibious assault weapons may not swim, walk, or roll, but…..slither.”

Automated Swarm Boats Are Next Up In Naval Warfare; Ocean-Dwelling Attack Bots, Flooding The Sea With Drones

Stephen Carlson, writing on the October 27, 2014 website — Task And Purpose, wrote that the “ONR, which uses modular kits of sensors, communications and sophisticated algorithms to convert existing small boats into autonomous drones — as part of a network of small craft a key part of fleet security,” in the years ahead. “We’re doing things we never thought possible previously. You look at the stuff on Mars, [and now landing a probe on a comet] It’s just remarkable,” said ONR’s Acting Director of Research, Dr. Lawrence Schuette.

Kristina Lindborg, writing on the July 16, 2014 website The Christian Science Monitor, described the future of underwater military drones this way: “They can range from a svelte 100 pounds, to several thousand. They can be snub-nosed, bullet shaped brutes that can dive six miles deep, or buoyancy-propelled machines that can gracefully glide for several months at a time. And, they can perform a myriad of tasks ranging from tackling pollution, to mapping terrain for oil and gas exploration.” Or, they can assist in underwater special operations as well as clandestine intelligence collection.

Then, there is this: “Ian McDuffee writing on the Sept. 13, 2013 Wired Magazine (Wired.com) discussed how the U.S. Navy and DARPA are working together in “developing submerged, unmanned platforms that can be deployed at a moments notice.” The program named Hydra (in Greek mythology, a serpent-like creature with many heads) would create an undersea network of unmanned payloads and platforms to increase the capability, and speed the response time to combat threats. These underwater drones can be delivered by aircraft, ship, or submarine. This program would complement the Upward Falling Payload Program announced in January 2013 by DARPA that would submerge “massive waterproof containers intended to store weapons, drones, and supplies for years to come.”

What Would Jules Verne Think Now?

Pretty interesting and thoughtful. Having said that, how “crowded” is the sea getting? How easily can we hide and camouflage these containers and drones? Is there a maintenance issue whereby we could be observed when repairing or deploying new gear/materials? What about battery life or power for these drones? Do we already have an ‘”underwater Predator/armed drone/s?” Can they stay dormant and reactivate based on the mission? Who is our “competition” in this space? Where are our peers/near-peers and adversaries in this space? Lots of questions, but interesting program and concept. Undersea logistics and intelligence collection drones?

Indeed, what would Jules Verne think now? V/R, RCP

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