U.S. Expands Use Of Underwater Unmanned Vehicles

By Antoine Martin
There are today an estimated 450 underwater unmanned vehicles in the U.S. military inventory.

They range in size, although most are small UUVs that are aimed at gathering oceanographic data, such as glider or hand-launched drones used to survey the seafloor in search of mines.

One of the more significant recent procurements has been a contract award to Bluefin Robotics — as a subcontractor to General Dynamics — to provide countermeasure systems that can detect and identify undersea mines in cluttered environments for the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships.

The Office of Naval Research, meanwhile, has received proposals for a “large displacement UUV” to navigate the seas up to 60 days at a time. The craft would be launched and recovered by surface combatant ships and submarines.

And the Navy’s Undersea Defensive Warfare Systems Program Office is procuring the SeaFox mine disposal systems from Atlas North America, the U.S. subsidiary of Germany’s Atlas Elektronik Group, a supplier of maritime defense electronics.

The Navy released a UUV “master plan” in 2004, and it is still relevant. Nine missions are identified: Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; mine countermeasures; anti-submarine warfare; inspection/identification; oceanography; communication/navigation network nodes; payload delivery; information operations; and time-critical strike.

Several recommendations from the master plan have been initiated. Among them is the development of four UUV classes including one that weighs less than 100 pounds, a lightweight vehicle at 500 pounds, a 3,000-pound heavy weight submersible and large submarine at around 20,000 pounds.

The plan also called for the development of standards and modularity, increased experimentation in the technology, coordination with other unmanned vehicle programs, and the fielding of systems in the fleet.

Those recommendations have not been executed yet, which might explain why an updated roadmap has not been made public.

One reason for the delays is there is no major threat at hand for which underwater drones are needed, such as roadside bombs that drove the rapid procurement of ground robots, or the demands for intelligence gathering that fueled purchases of aerial surveillance drones.

The Defense Department’s “Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap Fiscal Years 2011-2036” said that all systems will continue to expand their roles and numbers across the U.S. military. Unmanned underwater vehicles are folded into the unmanned maritime section, which points to their role of working in tandem with unmanned surface vehicles.

Priority missions are mine detection and maritime security.

The Office of Naval Research’s “Science & Strategy Plan 2011” projects continued development of unmanned systems. The priorities are increasing their endurance and power, and becoming more reliable in harsh maritime environments. These goals are particularly challenging as sensitive electronics must operate for days or weeks at sea. The robots are subjected to extreme pressure, corrosion, waves and currents. Poorly integrated technology does not survive long under these circumstances.

ONR will seek to develop underwater distributive networks, through the use of unmanned drones, which will in turn provide information on perception and environmental changes. Increasing the perception and intelligence of UUVs are recurring themes in Defense Department documents.

A major hurdle for the technology is the launch and recovery from other vehicles because of low speed, relatively low endurance and short-range communication. Underwater robots are covert by nature because of their small size and low sonar signature. If the host platform has to alter its operation to launch and recover one, it can be put at risk. This is especially sensitive when the launching and recovering is done from submarines. With limited launch tubes, trading torpedoes for UUVs is a tough choice.

The most immediate launch and recovery technological advances are found in unmanned surface vehicles. They complement and augment unmanned underwater vehicles and manned vessels, especially when it comes to clearing mine fields. Traditional mine hunting is time consuming, dangerous and costly, and UUVs are proven tools to survey mines. With mine-hunting vessels reaching the end of their lives, unmanned surface vehicles can do the job from non-dedicated mine hunter vessels. They will relay information by standing close to their underwater counterpart while keeping the manned platform away from the minefield. The surface vehicle could deploy one or more drones. Another option is to use robotic boats to magnetically trigger the mines, a method known as mine sweeping.

Traditional mid-size UUVs are stable and can endure more than a day underwater, but by design are prevented from moving in a cluttered environment, navigating against currents and operating in confined spaces. For that, new designs are needed.

A number of new designs of small underwater drones are expected in the coming years. The Office of Naval Research has been sponsoring new breeds of vehicles, such as the Ghost Swimmer from Boston Engineering, a scaled-down version based on the body of tuna, which is able to make sharp turns and thrusts against currents with its large tail. ONR has also sponsored iRobot Maritime for the concept of a sonobuoy UUV. It is dropped from the sonobuoy tubes of an aircraft, and navigates for a few hours instead of being dropped and left at the mercy of the currents. The ability of this self-propelled sonobuoy would enhance its role to detect submarines. Perhaps glider UUVs will end up becoming a new underwater robot class. “There will probably be some evolution of those platforms for greater payload or endurance capabilities and for the vehicle, itself,” said David P. Kelly, president and CEO of Bluefin Robotics, based in Quincy, Mass.

Unmanned aircraft are being increasingly used to carry weapons, or employed as kamikaze weapons. This provides a glimpse as to what to expect on the underwater side.

When weaponized, underwater robots will be able to act offensively and use their covertness to intervene in operations. The large-displacement UUV program intends to use the platform as a launch for underwater weapons. If the vehicles that are used to disable mines carry an explosive charge, what prevents them from going to a specified point to act as a mine? As torpedoes become smarter, one can see those two technologies being combined. Unmanned vehicles will also be able to act as torpedo decoys.

Synthetic aperture sonar and other sensors that give greater resolution will be a sought-after technology. The Defense Department also will seek advances in propulsion, energy for both storage and usage, as well as advanced autonomy. New deployable payloads such as distributed network sensors will first be developed as stand-alone projects, which will then be incorporated in UUV programs — such as the “persistent maritime surveillance demonstration” project to be integrated in the large-displacement program.

Increasing the endurance of the technology has become a pressing priority in the U.S. Navy. Former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead said he wanted to dedicate half of UUV research-and-development money to find solutions that improve their endurance. This is a prerequisite to augmenting their functions for intelligence gathering and offensive roles. If the launch and recovery platforms need to stay within their current endurance range — 20 hours is typical for today’s submersible robots — it puts the manned platforms fairly close to the operating zone.

Power is also needed to navigate in shallow waters, where currents are strong. The large displacement UUV is an ambitious program that will take significant resources to make it a reality. The goal is to deliver the first test vehicles in 2016, and to deploy a squadron of large vehicles by 2020.

Other opportunities are in inertial navigation systems, which are currently too expensive for small UUVs. Underwater endurance for large vehicles will require submarine-like navigational accuracy. Sensor advances such as sonar are as important as electro-optical sensors are to remotely piloted aircraft. There will always be a need for better resolution, smaller form factor, and lesser power consumption in the processing of sonar data.

Companies that are seeking to enter the market should find opportunities in port security missions. There will also be more teaming among established companies. Battelle Memorial Institute, The Columbia Group, and Bluefin Robotics are developing a large diameter UUV test bed that is called Proteus. As budgets become tighter, few firms will invest their own capital to only serve the Navy, since they cannot assess the risks of whether their products will sell.

There is a large commercial market for the technology in the offshore oil and gas industries. Defense firms such as The Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. have attempted to get return on corporate research and development investments by selling to both defense and commercial markets. This “market cross” of UUVs seems to be especially visible now that the defense budget is on the decline, and that natural resources need to be extracted in more remote areas such as the poles or in deep water.

A similar pattern is observed with fuel cell companies that are targeting the transportation and underwater-vehicle industries. In addition, there will be more mature products from foreign companies being marketed in the United States, more often through a joint venture, subsidiary, and almost always by working with a prime contractor. Conversely, U.S. firms are eager to sell overseas, but the navigation systems and autonomy of the technology presents export hurdles when it comes to foreign-sales regulations.

The Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command Systems Center Pacific, based in San Diego, is the funding and executing office of two expected programs. The center is seeking improved automation technologies, which is a way to gradually remove humans from the operation of unmanned systems. This satisfies two goals: to develop technology that will cut costs by removing expensive trained persons; and to take a measured and cautious approach to autonomy. Bluefin Robotics, for instance, acquired the intellectual property and expertise of Hawkes Remotes remotely operated vehicles as a way to address this problem.

The most immediate need is for unmanned underwater vehicles to reduce human and material risks. In that vein, most of the procurement funding is likely to be allocated to mine countermeasures. In the mid and long term, “UUVs will be increasingly used as a force multiplier or to extend the reach in range and capabilities of manned assets,” said David Olszewski of Atlas North America.

“Shallow water infrastructure and ports and harbors facilities are subject to asymmetric threats,” said Kelly, of Bluefin. The company is offering the Bluefin-9 UUV to survey ship lanes and map the underwater environment, and a hovering submersible to inspect ship hulls in ports.

The Pentagon’s budget request for unmanned maritime systems (including unmanned surface) research, development, testing, procurement, operations and maintenance is approximately $641 million for the 2011 to 2015 period.                                       

Antoine Martin is an industry consultant and principal of Unmanned Vehicles Systems Consulting LLC. His research reports are published by Market Intel Group LLC
http://marketintelgroup.com/unmanned-maritime-systems-umv-usv-uuv-defense-security-markets. He can be reached at AMartin@UVS-Consulting.com.

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Underwater Vehicles, Undersea Warfare

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