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Unmanned Systems 

As Technology Matures, New Roles Emerge for Underwater Drones 

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By Yasmin Tadjdeh 


Bluefin-21 is moved into position for deployment in the Indian Ocean

When Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing in March, navies and governments from across the globe scrambled to analyze satellite data and search for debris fields over the expansive and deep Indian Ocean.

So far, the search for the Boeing 777 aircraft — which carried 239 people onboard — has been unsuccessful, with few clues emerging about the fate of the passengers and crew.

A myriad of technologies have been employed to locate the lost plane, but it is perhaps a Bluefin Robotics’ unmanned underwater vehicle that has made some of the biggest waves.

For several weeks this past spring, the Navy used its Bluefin-21 UUV — which is owned by Phoenix International and contracted to the sea service — to look for wreckage at the bottom of the ocean.

While the underwater drone did not locate the plane, it showcased the potential of a growing technology that some experts believe could one day take a greater role in undersea warfare, recovery missions, logistic operations and environmental study.

While scouring the bottom of the ocean, the Bluefin-21 dove to crushing depths of 5,000 meters, said Jeff Smith, chief operating officer of the Bluefin Robotics Corp., a wholly-owned subsidiary of Battelle. That was deeper than any other Bluefin-21 had reached before, he said.

The UUV measures a little more than 16 feet in length and 21 inches in diameter. It weighs 1,650 pounds and can reach maximum speeds of 4.5 knots, depending on attached payloads. It can operate for 25 straight hours.

The Bluefin-21 was deployed within days of the plane’s disappearance to collect critical side-scan sonar data along the bottom of the ocean floor, Smith said. In total, it was used for 25 missions over 21 operational days. The vehicle clocked in 370 hours of search time while covering 250 square miles.

Following the search, the Bluefin-21 received an enormous amount of international attention, Smith said.

“The feedback we got was extremely positive for how a single vehicle was out there and able to successfully operate at such a high operational tempo on a daily basis, doing back-to-back missions,” he said.

The vehicle represents just one of Bluefin Robotics’ underwater drones, which all have varying endurance and depth capabilities. Overall, the domestic and international UUV market is a burgeoning one, Smith said. 

“[In] the defense market — even though defense budgets are obviously a challenge — there does seem to be some avenues of growth within it, particularly around unmanned systems, as it brings down some of the man costs,” he said.

“The technology has definitely advanced tremendously, and it is now advancing at a faster and faster rate,” Smith said. “We are clearly fielding greater systems every few years [and] greater capabilities that will continue to drive the need and the utility of these vehicles. You are seeing things like greater endurance, greater persistence, greater autonomy, better sensors, and all of that will … ultimately make the oceans more transparent.”

While UUVs made headlines during the search for Flight 370, they have largely sat in the shadow of their sky-faring counterparts.

Unmanned aerial vehicle technology has exploded over the past decade, with vehicles becoming lighter, faster and stealthier. The military has employed UAVs on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan to gather reconnaissance as well as strike targets. Companies want to use them for everything from cargo transport to high-quality aerial photography.

While unmanned underwater vehicle technology is advancing, it is not maturing as quickly as UAVs. Part of the reason is because UUV engineers face a technological nut that aerial drone developers do not have to crack, said Frank Herr, head of the Office of Naval Research’s ocean battlespace sensing department.

Aerial drones do not have to truly fly themselves as they often have a strong radio connection back to a command center where a pilot is controlling the vehicle. UUVs, on the other hand, have to be almost completely autonomous because oceans are opaque to radio signals, Herr said.

“Underwater vehicles are much harder to do because of this inability for us to communicate robustly with the vehicles the way you can in the air. That means they are way behind in the development,” Herr said.

Acoustic signals are one solution, but because they travel at the speed of sound, they can be slower than using radio signals, Herr said.

ONR is working on projects that tackle the autonomy issue, including the large displacement unmanned underwater vehicle (LDUUV). It is designed to survive and operate in littoral environments for 60 days or more, he said. It should also be able to transit the open ocean and conduct over-the-horizon missions in littoral waters.

“The creation of LDUUV is intended to act as a significant force multiplier for the U.S. Navy and will help close warfighter gaps in a cost-effective manner,” Herr said.

It could potentially complete missions such as mine countermeasures, deploying sensors or transporting items from different parts of the ocean to another, he said.

A prototype is slated for completion by 2017, Herr said.

Key areas in the development of the LDUUV include greater autonomy and the creation of efficient fuel cells that will facilitate long-term submersion, he said.

Better reliability is another goal of the program, Herr said. On a submarine or a ship, a sailor can fix a small problem — such as a broken pump — relatively quickly.

“When you are out on an autonomous vehicle, even minor things can be a complete showstopper and have the vehicle get to a point where it can’t do anything,” Herr said.

Alan Beam, a retired Navy captain and member of the board of directors at the Autonomous Undersea Vehicle Applications Center, an organization which advocates for better development and integration of UUVs, echoed the necessity of increased reliability.

“If you’re going to send something out there and have it operate for weeks or months, it needs to be able to always come back, or at least sense that there is a problem or tell you there is a problem,” Beam said.

For instance, a vehicle ideally should understand that the reason it is suddenly moving slower is because it ran into a net, Beam said. Recognizing the issue, the UUV could attempt to complete its mission if there is enough energy available, or abort the mission, float to the surface and alert a ship to its location.

One of the biggest focus areas of unmanned underwater vehicle development is decreasing risk for sailors deployed in mine-heavy areas.

The Knifefish program, led by General Dynamics, is one of the leading UUV technologies is this area. The underwater drone will be used for mine countermeasures aboard the littoral combat ship, said Tom Mason, General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems’ senior program manager for Knifefish.

“With the ability to reliably detect and identify volume, bottom and buried mines in high-clutter environments, Knifefish acts as an off-board sensor while the host ship stays safely outside the minefield boundaries,” Mason said in an email to National Defense. “In addition to enhancing intelligence reporting and situational awareness for commanders and the fleet, Knifefish also significantly reduces risk to Navy personnel.”

The UUV completed its critical design review and risk reduction program last year. It was slated for in-water testing trials this past summer, Mason said.

While mine countermeasures are one of the most high profiles uses of UUV technology, the potential applications are limitless, said Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

Uses include environmental research and monitoring marine life, he said. They could even one day be used for cargo transport if travel on the sea’s surface is treacherous.

“There are different trade routes that you may be able [to use] to get from Point A to Point B [for] moving goods. Rather than going above the surface where you have storms, you can go below the surface and maybe the currents are a lot easier,” he said. “We talk about UPS and FedEx, you may have a lot of that going virtually under the oceans.”

For the most part, he said, the military has been the biggest investors and buyers of UUVs. In the future, more commercial and civil entities will likely begin to use underwater drones to do dull, dangerous, difficult and dirty tasks, Toscano said.

“This technology is an extension of the eyes, the ears and the hands … of human beings,” Toscano said.

The commercial sector will further embrace UUVs as prices drop, in turn creating more innovation, he said.

“When you look at the ability to do salvaging or investigation or even discovery in our oceans, this is a big deal. This is one of the game changers,” he said. “As the ability for us to show more and more business cases or market cases to utilize this technology [grows], you are going to see more of the technology come to bear.”

At the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, scientists and engineers are working on a number of UUV-related projects intended to increase their speed and utility.

DARPA is allocating nearly $14 million in fiscal year 2015 for the Blue Wolf UUV program, according to a Department of Defense fiscal year 2015 budget estimate document.

According to a July broad agency announcement, “The Blue Wolf program will develop and demonstrate an integrated underwater vehicle capable of operating at speed-range combinations previously unachievable in fixed-size platforms, while retaining traditional volume and weight fractions for payloads and electronics.”

The program — which is under the agency’s tactical technology office — aims to develop ways to reduce drag on the UUV, the BAA said.

Another high profile DARPA project is the Hydra program. Scientists working on Hydra are developing an underwater drone that can lay idle on the ocean floor and deploy various payloads to the surface when commanded.

“Hydra integrates existing and emerging technologies and the ability to be positioned in the littoral undersea battlespace to create a disruptive capability,” the DARPA budget document said.

The system will include communication platforms, command-and-control packages, energy storage units and various payloads, the document said. Payloads could include intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms and mine countermeasures.

DARPA allocated nearly $30 million for the program in fiscal year 2015, according to the document. That is in addition to the nearly $15 million it received in funding in fiscal year 2014.  The agency plans to create concept designs and work on the development of prototypes for the payloads and enclosures over the upcoming fiscal year, the document said.

The agency wants Hydra to be a cost effective method of rapidly deploying undersea technology in a pinch.

“The rising number of ungoverned states, piracy and proliferation of sophisticated defenses severely stretches current resources and impacts the nation’s ability to conduct special operations and contingency missions,” read a 2013 broad agency announcement for the program. “The Hydra program represents a cost effective way to add undersea capacity that can be tailored to support each mission.”

Photo Credit: Navy
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