Motherships May Overwhelm Future Adversaries With Robot Hordes

By Valerie Insinna
According to Greek mythology, the deadly, serpent-like Hydra was nearly undefeatable. Cutting off its head would cause it to grow two back in its place, rendering the creature exponentially more dangerous.

Military agencies and defense contractors have created design concepts and fledgling programs that embody Hydra’s survivability and versatility — a huge fleet of small platforms that can be used to surprise and overwhelm an enemy that thought it had the advantage.  Although the “mothership” concept isn’t new, experts say it may grow increasingly relevant in future years.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was inspired by the Greek myth to create the Hydra program. Its version of the many-headed serpent is a collection of unmanned payloads and platforms that lie dormant on the ocean floor for weeks and months before being deployed.

The Navy currently relies too much on large, advanced ships and submarines that carry out many different missions, DARPA information said. Even though these vessels are highly survivable and capable, they can only be in one place at a time. Rather than stretching themselves thin, unmanned platforms can help the service project power at less cost than building new ships.

“The climate of budget austerity runs up against an uncertain security environment that includes natural disasters, piracy, ungoverned states and the proliferation of sophisticated defense technologies,” Scott Littlefield, DARPA’s program manager, said in a news release. “An unmanned technology infrastructure staged below the ocean’s surface could relieve some of that resource strain and expand military capabilities in this increasingly challenging space.”

DARPA wants to develop a modular enclosure — a kind of mothership that will transport, house and launch payloads while traveling throughout littoral waters, a 2013 broad agency announcement stated. The enclosure will be able to conduct all operations without surfacing, meaning that it must have sufficient energy, propulsion and command-and-control capabilities to complete an entire mission.

That mothership drone would deploy even more unmanned vehicles underwater, in the air or on the surface of the ocean. Hydra’s underwater payloads could tackle missions including mine countermeasures and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. However, most of their focus “will be on safely transporting existing undersea vehicles, providing the required energy for long endurance, efficiently transferring energy, transferring and transmitting collected information and launching and docking the vehicles.”

The agency also wants to create unmanned aerial vehicles that could be ejected from the underwater modular enclosure and fly missions, the BAA stated.

Additional payloads could be fielded in the future.

The system’s communications suite will be integrated with manned Navy payloads, allowing for cooperation with Hydra’s unmanned platforms or for sailors to remotely control them from over the horizon, it said.

DARPA also sought proposals on how to develop a concept of operations for the system, including how to deploy and retrieve systems and how to structure the command, control and communications architecture. Ships, submarines and aircraft could all be used to deliver Hydra to littorals, the agency said.

Proposals for the Hydra system’s design were due last year. Later phases will include integrating and testing components, risk reduction, as well as final demonstrations of the entire system in fiscal year 2018.

DARPA declined to comment on this story, including on whether it has awarded contracts to industry.

The mothership concept applies to surface vessels as well.

“Right now there are a lot of vessels in littoral areas with foreign governments that have the ability to send all these boats out with small missiles on them. So we looked down the road — what is the way to actually defeat that threat?” asked Bill Hansen, founder of Safe Boats International. Hansen now works for Inventech Marine Solutions, an independent support arm for Safe Boats that designs new vessels and patented technology.

“Everything is conceptual right now, but we think we can design a way to basically have a very fast autonomous vessel that would be deployed from a mothership and …  react to a threat,” he added.

Hansen envisions a 10- to 13-meters long surface-piercing monohull with a water jet propulsion system that allows the boat to exceed 100 miles per hour. The vessel would be gyroscopically stabilized and have up to a 4,000-pound payload. The Navy could deploy these smaller boats, which could be either manned or unmanned, from one of its large ships.

The company is also designing hybrid technologies that could be incorporated on vessels to decrease fuel reliance, he said.

Safe Boats could design, produce and deliver the surface-piercing boats in as little as a decade, depending on the funding, Hansen said. Citing competitive reasons, he declined to offer further information on the design of the boat or possible missions it could tackle.

BAE Systems’ research-and-development team has developed another twist on the mothership approach. This summer it unveiled a concept design for the “Transformer,” a system of smaller jets that can combine into one large flying wing aircraft.

The benefits of traveling together as one plane include increased range and reduced drag, which decreases fuel use, BAE engineers said in a news release.

“Once they have reached their objective, however, the craft can then split off and adapt to any given situation — whether that is going on the offensive if threatened, or performing functional tasks such as surveillance or the dropping of supplies,” the news release stated.

A system similar to the Transformer could be a reality by 2040, it added.         

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Topics: Aviation, Science and Engineering Technology

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