The new frontier for drone warfare is underwater, from tiny 7kg microsubs to the 15-metre Echo Voyager

The Pentagon envisages a future undersea battlescape in which unmanned combatants spend years patrolling offshore at a time

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 November, 2016, 1:39pm
UPDATED : Friday, 25 November, 2016, 8:40pm

As unmanned aerial drones have become a critical part of modern warfare, the Pentagon is now looking to deploy autonomous robots underwater, patrolling the sea floor on a network complete with rest stops where the drones could recharge.

Although still in the development stages, the technology has matured in recent years to be able to overcome the vast difficulties of operating underwater, a far more harsh environment than what aerial drones face in the sky.

Saltwater corrodes metal. Water pressure can be crushing at great depths. And communication is severely limited, so the vehicles must be able to navigate on their own without being remotely piloted.

Despite the immense difficulties, the Navy has been testing and fielding several new systems designed to map the ocean floor, seek out mines, search for submarines and even launch attacks.

While the unmanned craft are now able to stay out for days or weeks, the goal is to create an underwater network of service stations that would allow the vehicles to do their jobs for months - and eventually years.

Military officials say there is a sense of urgency because the undersea domain, while often overlooked, could one day be as contested as the surface of the sea, the skies - and even space.

While Russia and China are investing in their submarine fleets, the Pentagon has sought to seize an advantage by introducing new technologies, especially those where humans team up with highly capable robots and autonomous systems.

In 2015, the Navy appointed its first deputy assistant secretary for unmanned systems. And the Pentagon plans to invest as much as US$3 billion in undersea systems in the coming years.

Last month, the Navy participated in the multi-nation Unmanned Warrior exercise off the coast of Scotland. Autonomous subs worked in concert with aerial drones to pass along intelligence that could be relayed from undersea to the air and then to troops on the ground.

It’s too early to tell how the Trump administration might view the plans. But Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said advancements in undersea warfare should continue to be a priority for the Navy.

“The Pentagon feels like the US is well positioned to do undersea warfare and anti-submarine warfare better than any other country,” said Clark, the author of a report titled “The Emerging Era in Undersea Warfare.” “What’s changing, though, is other counties are developing the ability to deny above the water...So the US is thinking it’ll have to rely much more on under the water.”

The goal is to have the unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) deploy from manned submarines or even large autonomous drone subs the way fighter jets take off from aircraft carriers, he said. The Chinese and others have built sensors that can detect large manned submarines, but the military could still send in small, hard-to-detect drone subs.

The Office of Naval Research (ONR), which looks to develop advanced technologies, is seeking to “build the Eisenhower highway network on the seabeds in the seven oceans,” Rear Admiral Mathias Winter, head of the office, said at a conference hosted by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies this year. The ultimate goal is to “have large-scale deployments of UUVs,” he said. “We want them to go out for decades at a time.”

While the project is still in the conceptual stages, the Navy would one day like to build service stations underwater, similar to highway rest stops. There is even a name for them: forward-deployed energy and communications outposts.

“A place where you can gas up or charge your underwater vehicles, transfer data and maybe store some data,” said Frank Herr, the head of the ONR’s ocean battlespace sensing department.

While that may be a long way off, the Pentagon is testing vehicles that are capable of going out for weeks or even months at a time. In recent years, Boeing has developed the Echo Ranger and Echo Seeker, autonomous vehicles capable of carrying out days-long operations. This year, it debuted the Echo Voyager, a 15-metre-long autonomous submarine with the ability to stay out for months; it isn’t dependent on a support ship the way others are.

“You don’t need to have a support ship involved, and that drastically reduces the daily operational cost,” said Lance Towers, director of sea and land at Boeing’s Phantom Works division.

This year, General Dynamics boosted its underwater offerings when it acquired Bluefin Robotics, which makes several types of underwater robots. Its 5-metre-long Bluefin-21 vehicle is capable of launching what the company calls “micro UUVs,” known as SandSharks, that weigh only about 7kg. The SandSharks could scan an enemy shoreline and pop up to the surface to relay data to aircraft flying overhead. The Bluefin-21 could even launch a tube that goes to the surface, sticks up like a large straw and then shoots out an unmanned aerial vehicle like a spitball.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) meanwhile has a plan to plant 5-metre-tall pods across the ocean floor that could sit there for years waiting to be awakened. When they received a signal, they would float to the surface and release aerial drones, which could perform surveillance over shorelines.