The U.S. military wants an underwater robot that’s strong enough to stay at sea for months, and smart enough to avoid any obstacles it might find along the way.
The American Navy has hundreds of manned ships and subs, of course. But it’s a big ocean out there: they can’t be everywhere at once. So the sea service is looking to unmanned vehicles as a way to keep its maritime dominance in the years to come.
The Large Displacement Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (LDUUV) program, recently introduced by the Office of Naval Research, is the military’s attempt to build a prototype of that machine. If the Navy can pack up such a drone with sensors and send it out into the sea for long periods of time, they can push “Navy platform sensing capability over the horizon and extend its influence,” the Office of Naval Research notes in its call for proposals.
Outgoing Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead, has been a big backer of sub bots. He told Danger Room in November that the Navy wants Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) that can stay out longer. “I need something I can keep out for weeks, that can move in strong ocean currents, that can close distances quickly,” Roughead said. ONR aims to push its underwater drone endurance even further than that and “extend the current capability of these vehicles from tens of hours to operability of the system for weeks to months,” according to the recent announcement.
There’s already some long endurance undersea drone technology in the form of ocean gliders (.pdf). These vessels use changes in buoyancy to power themselves over long periods. It makes them particularly handy for scientists, who often use the gliders to collect environmental data. Gliding, however, can be slow-going. The LDUUV, by contrast, will be a propelled craft.
ONR has outlined a challenging course for the pier-launched LDUUV prototype’s undersea tests. It needs to stay out for more than two months (over 70 days) and “reach 40 prescribed waypoints within 5 hours of the approved plan and 50 [meters] of each waypoint.” To keep it swimming around that long, ONR is looking for “power reduction technologies” that can cut down on the “power of core system while maintaining the current capability.”
When LDUUV hits the water for testing, it’ll be left mostly to its own devices to maneuver. So ONR is asking developers to give it a leg up against underwater hazards with autonomy software and sensors that can detect and avoid different maritime obstacles. By the end of its second phase of testing, LDUUV’s autonomy gear will have to find 99.9 percent of any vessels within a two nautical mile radius, figure out what kind of craft it is (military, fishing, recreational) and adjust its movement accordingly.
Ships aren’t the only trouble LDUUV can run into. In the area close to the shorelines, it’s likely to come across fishing nets. Those can be hard to spot, particularly if they’re “mono-filament and twine nets.” The last thing the Navy wants is a fishing net full of high tech drones, so ONR is looking for software and algorithms that can spot an array of net types and help LDUUV wiggle away if it gets caught in one.
Source: wired, August 9, 2011; Image: dvids