Magazine article National Defense

As Technology Matures, New Roles Emerge for Underwater Drones

Magazine article National Defense

As Technology Matures, New Roles Emerge for Underwater Drones

Article excerpt

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," be 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. …

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