Giant submarines filled with small underwater drones to protect the seas. The concept sounds like something out of a science fiction movie or a particularly trippy Sealab 2021 episode, but the U.S. military thinks it is very doable–and that it could help augment American sea power. This week, DARPA announced their new Project Hydra, an early-stage effort to fight the “rising number of ungoverned states, piracy, and proliferation of sophisticated defenses“ through autonomous underwater vehicles. Hydra itself would center around a submarine that discreetly injects unmanned aerial drones (UAVs) and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) into warzones.
While DARPA’s proposal is in the early stages, unmanned underwater vehicles have been around for quite some time. Hydroid (no relation to Hydra) is a Massachusetts-based subsidiary of Norwegian defense contractor Kongsberg which specializes in manufacturing autonomous underwater vehicles. I recently spoke with Hydroid’s president and co-founder, Chris von Alt, about how autonomous drones actually work underwater. The firm’s customers, which include militaries around the world, energy companies, and scientific institutions, all use AUVs to go where it’s too time-consuming or deadly for human-manned boats to go. For instance, removing mines.
Von Alt explains that the United States Navy routinely uses AUVs for mine countermeasure operations in the Persian Gulf. The Navy’s Fifth Fleet, based in the troubled island nation of Bahrain, has to detect potential or existing mines in the Persian Gulf; Iran has threatened to mine the Persian Gulf if armed hostilities commence with the United States. Hydroid’s Remus (Remote Environmental Measuring Units) line of AUVs were used in a recent war games-like exercise alongside other anti-mine drones such as the SeaFox unmanned submarine.
As Von Alt puts it, his company’s Remus drones are “free-swimming vehicles programmed with a laptop that dive underwater and operate without human intervention. They’re different from other drones not only because they’re underwater, but because they have very little communication bandwidth. While they are capable limited amounts of information while they are underwater, operators have to wait until they are recovered to analyze the high resolution data they collect while submerged.”
While the Fifth Fleet used AUVs to find wargaming mines in the murk of the ocean and distinguish them from waste on the ocean floor, the sea drones have other uses. A team led by National Geographic used two Remus 6000s to map the Titanic wreck site. The drones can dive up to 6000 meters underwater, and mapped a massive three-by-five square mile area underwater for further investigations. Remus drones were also used to survey the wreckage of Air France Flight 447.
But for Hydroid and other AUV manufacturers, the real cash cow potential of unmanned submarines is in the ever-lucrative energy sector. Von Alt told me that the sonar functionality on AUVs can be used to find seeps in underwater pipelines, and that isn’t the only potential use. As the cost of AUVs decreases, they are being used to inspect energy pipelines. Boat-towed sonar tools called towfish are the preferred method of patrolling underwater pipelines, but there is an obvious cash appeal in switching to automated, self-propelled submarines instead.
As Von Alt puts it, “being able to take a robot, throw it off a boat … and then have it go five miles below the surface and take pictures? It’s really something.”
Update: This story was corrected to reflect that although IMCMEX was hosted by the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT)/U.S. 5th Fleet, it was not a formal United States military wargame and to clarify National Geographic’s role in the Titanic expedition.