Industry Sees Increased Opportunities for Unmanned Underwater Drones

By Allyson Versprille

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. —  Manufacturers of unmanned underwater vehicles put their new models front and center at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space conference. Executives said they hoped the burgeoning technology would be appeal to U.S. and foreign navies.

Military leaders said the technology, coupled with air assets, would give the military increased situation awareness.

The Office of Naval Research’s large-displacement unmanned underwater vehicle — which is being designed to prowl the littorals for months at a time — could work alongside manned assets, said

Rear Adm. Mark W. Darrah, program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons.

“We’re going to have to operate LDUUVs simultaneously with an unmanned Fire Scout [helicopter]  operating in a littoral area in concert … with a manned system,” he said. Using an MH-60 manned anti submarine helicopter along with the underwater drone and the Fire Scout gives a “battle group commander a view that they’ve never had before.”

Rear Adm. Mathias W. Winter, chief of ONR, noted that the Navy is investing heavily in undersea technologies.

“We do have an incredible amount of undersea [investment], to the tune of about 22 percent of our [science and technology] dollars going to the undersea domain, for not just vehicles but for the complete constellation, operations [and] communication of the future fleet of underwater capabilities,” he said.

While UUVs and unmanned aerial vehicles are very different, the technology underlying both systems is similar. More testing is still needed in terms of sense-and-avoid, persistence, power

generation and payload capability for both kinds of robots, he said.

“All of that is underway,” he said.

On the exhibit floor, industry members were optimistic that the military will continue to invest and experiment with underwater drones.

At the Huntington Ingalls Industries booth, executives showcased its Proteus vehicle. The dual-mode underwater vehicle was created by HII and Battelle and can be manned or unmanned. It can travel hundreds of miles and can hold various payloads. When in a manned mode, it can serve as an underwater delivery vehicle for special operators, said Ross Lindman, senior vice president of operations for the Undersea Solutions Group, a subsidiary of HII.

“It is one of a kind in the world,” he said. “It’s the only dual mode undersea vehicle that can operate either manned or unmanned.”

The vehicle is currently being tested under an ONR program called advanced undersea weapons systems that seeks to arm Proteus, Lindman said. It could one day be “the undersea equivalent of the Predator drone.”

It has previously been leased by the Navy as a testbed for undersea experiments. It currently has 400 hours of mission time and a little over 100 dives, Lindman noted.

There is considerable domestic and international interest in the vehicle, he said.

Another underwater drone on display at the show was Battelle’s SandShark. The system — which weighs less than 15 pounds — allows for payload modularity and is being marketed as a more affordable alternative to large, often expensive, UUVs, said Chris Murphy, the lead scientist for Bluefin Robotic’s strategic systems division. Bluefin is owned by Battelle.

“We really see it as being a reliable back section that lets us look at applications that people really haven’t been chasing because of the cost point of a full-sized vehicle, the logistic complexity of a full-sized vehicle and the risk associated with losing a full-sized vehicle,” Murphy said. “We’re really trying to open up applications that haven’t been pursued traditionally.”

The system is going through testing and has been in a development program with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Other systems at the show included Teledyne Brown Engineering's Littoral Battlespace Sensing Glider UUV,  and Boeing's SHARC surface unmanned vehicle that is powered by waves.

Topics: Robotics, Undersea Warfare

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