Sunday, July 6, 2014

Paul Scharre on Robot Swarms

On June 11, at the eighth annual Center for New American Security’s National Security Conference, Paul Scharre, Fellow and Project Director for the 20YY Warfare Initiative discussed the future of robotics in warfare to include the use of unmanned swarms, which have been discussed extensively here.  The video (below) is thought-provoking, and worth watching in its entirety, but we've provided the highlights, especially as they relate to naval systems.

He describes several naval scenarios, including the use of unmanned surface vehicles to disrupt small boat swarm attacks on larger combatants and UAV counter-swarms. He also proposes that unmanned missile barges could work in tandem with the U.S. Navy's fleet of guided missile destroyers are limited in magazine capacity for missile defense.

In the undersea realm, Scharre alludes to DARPA's Hydra project, in which unmanned vehicles would sit dormant on the sea floor until required to awaken for their missions.  Also of note, is the discussion on the Army's multi-aircraft control, increased automation, and that technology's potential to enable drone swarms.

During the Q&A, he addresses one of the primary criticisms of unmanned aircraft skeptics; that is, the requirement for constant bandwidth, which could become a liability in an electromagnetically-contested environment.  In addition to increased autonomy mitigating that issue, Scharre notes that only a small percentage of bandwidth in use today is devoted to vehicle control; most is dedicated to transmitting real-time full motion video from the UAV's sensors.  In some scenarios, such as hunting for military targets with specific signatures, that sort of bandwidth would be unnecessary.

Perhaps most interesting was his reference to the forthcoming study on swarming that the 20YY Warfare Initiative will produce later this year.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Autonomous Submarine Drones: Cheap, Endless Patrolling

The US Navy recently announced that it will make more use of submarine drones, contracting with marine technology developer Teledyne Benthos to re-purpose the Slocum Glider as an instrument used for military activity. The contract is worth $203.7M.
 
If you haven’t heard of it yet, here is what the Slocum Glider is: a 5 foot-long autonomous underwater vehicle capable of moving to specific locations and descending to depths of 4,000 feet. It is driven by variable buoyancy, and it can move both horizontally and vertically.
 
The Slocum Glider can be programmed to patrol for weeks at a time, collecting data on its environment, surfacing to transmit to shore while downloading new instructions at regular intervals.
Compared to traditional methods, the drones have a relative small cost: the need for personnel and infrastructure is reduced to its minimum and the vehicle is able to work around the clock and around the calendar. It works very well: in November 2012, an autonomous glider set a Guinness World Record by traveling over 14,000 kilometers on an autonomous journey of just over one year duration!
 
Many Navies and ocean research organizations already use a wide variety of gliders, which cost around $100,000. But the US Navy now plans to increase the number of those drones from 65 to 150 by 2015. In its 2015 budget request, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency even claimed for $19 million to develop drones “that can provide non-lethal effects or situational awareness over large maritime areas.” This represents a spending increase of nearly 60 percent over 2014!
 
The good news for us is that these submarine drones, unlike the majority of airborne drones, won’t use environmentally unfriendly fuel. Instead, the glider is propelled by the thermocline, which is thermal energy found between the upper and lower mixed layers of sea water. The upper surface has a near atmospheric temperature while the deep water ocean has a temperature situated between 2 and 4 °C.
 
Those new submarine drones can be used to predict the weather by collecting an enormous amount of data at various spots in the ocean. In 2011, a US Government Accountability Office report warned that without improvements to their earth-monitoring capabilities, the USA would “not be able to provide key environmental data that are important for sustaining climate and space weather measurements”; data for warnings of extreme events such as hurricanes, storm surges, and floods would then be less accurate and timely. This led the US Navy to make a deal to share the Navy Ocean Forecast System software with the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration.
 
But that’s not all: another autonomous submarine drone, the Bluefin-21, created by the American company Bluefin Robotics, has scanned just over 300 square kilometers of Indian Ocean seabed searching for the wreckage of the lost Malaysian plane, whichdisappeared from radar screens on 8th March. The drone was launched from the Australian Defence Vessel Ocean Shield.
 
Bluefin-21 is an autonomous underwater vehicle, 4.93 meters long and 53 centimeters in diameter, specially designed for detection, recognition and statements in the seabed.It is capable of carrying various sensors and payloads. This technology, called side-scan sonar, builds a picture of the seabed at a 4500 meters depth.
 
This drone also has a significant autonomy, 25 hours at 3 knots average, which allows it to achieve extended underwater missions.It weighs 750pounds, which makes it easily transportable by a wide range of boats.
 
From all this, it is clear that submarine drones will become an important part of the navies’ equipment!
 
By Alix Willimez. Reprinted with permission from the Center for International Maritime Security.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Most Realistic Fish-bot You've Ever Seen - and What it Could Mean for Naval Warfare

Bio-inspired maritime robotics is an emerging field gaining significant traction. Two examples the U.S. Navy has funded include Boston Engineering's Bioswimmer, and the odd robotic jellyfish, Cyro.  Both of these projects look clumsy compared to a robotic fish recently developed by a consortium of Polish researchers from the Technical University of Krakow, the marine technology firm  FORKOS, and the Polish Naval Academy.  The group's CyberRyba ("Cyber-fish") autonomous underwater vehicle can move along a preset route, but will eventually be able to autonomously avoid obstacles and log data from a sonar or video camera. The carp-like CyberRyba's uncanny realistic movement is aided by an articulating body and tail as well as independently moving pectoral fins allowing it to hover in place.

The ultimate goal of the research is to support the European Defence Agency's "Swarm of Biomimetic Underwater Vehicles for Underwater ISR" (SABUVIS) program beginning in 2015.  The EDA currently runs a €53.7 million Unmanned Maritime Systems (UMS) program, in which 11 countries are focused on improving mine-counter measures and related naval technologies.



How might such swarm of life-like robo-fishes be employed tactically by a Navy? There are several possible future scenarios, with the most obvious case being environmental characterization. Hydrography, the study of the physical features of the ocean, and oceanography are critical for nearly all naval operations. An understanding of a body of water's temperature, salinity, bottom composition, acoustic properties, etc. supports amphibious landings, anti-submarine warfare, and mine counter-measures.  Autonomous underwater vehicles are rapidly becoming the go-to technology for these operations, and a swarm of AUVs communicating with each other and perhaps a mothership or base station would complete survey missions more rapidly than individual drones or divers. To conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), schools of cyber-fishes might emplace, monitor, and relay data from unattended underwater sensors or be the sensors themselves.  In support of future anti-submarine warfare, AUVs positioned at various places in the water column could each carry a single hydrophone, enabling them to triangulate the acoustic signals from an enemy submarine.

See these posts for more information on how drone swarms will impact future naval warfare.

Friday, May 2, 2014

OPVs and Drones: An Affordable Match

Unmanned systems are finding use on a larger variety of naval vessels, including those normally too small to operate helicopters.  Navies and coast guards operating Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) in particular, are finding that unmanned systems can greatly extend the reach and versatility of these compact combatants. OPVs as a category are not well-defined; they're generally smaller than a corvette, larger than a patrol boat, and feature efficient diesel engines for long endurance,though generally at slower speeds than larger combatants.  They sometimes feature small flight decks (but usually not hangars), small-to-medium caliber naval guns, and a few have short-range surface-to-air missiles for self defense.  Though often conceptualized for coastal defense, the endurance and sea-keeping ability of OPVs often allows them to support global, open ocean missions.

Skeldar operating on a Spanish OPV.
The list of Navy OPVs operating as drone motherships is growing rapidly.  The new Irish Offshore Patrol Vessel  LÉ Samuel Beckett recently conducted sea trials and is equipped to operate both Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) and Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs). OPVs like the 1,900 ton Beckett support a variety of missions including coastal security, counter-narcotics/counter-piracy patrols, search and rescue, and fisheries enforcement. The 1,800 ton Blohm+Voss' MEKO OPV advertises the capability to launch and recover unmanned surface vessels at up to sea state 5 and embark 4-6 UAVs. DCNS' Gowind-class L'Adroit OPV has flown the S-100 CAMCOPTER and can also operate USVs. Spain flew Saab's Skeldar UAV from the deck of the OPV BAM Meteoro during its anti-piracy deployment in the Gulf of Aden last year. Finally, the U.S. Coast Guard's future "Offshore Patrol Cutter" will be designed from the keel up to accommodate UAVs, UUVs, and USVs.

Navies are embracing these smaller, more lightly armed, long range ships quite simply because they are more affordable for many missions than larger surface combatants. And whereas just a few years ago, ships of this size were limited to detecting only what their surface search radars could see, UAVs give them the ability to detect, identify, and track contacts well over the horizon. The addition of UUVs will give OPVs a mine-hunting and environmental survey capability and USVs will enhance their anti-surface warfare reach.

For much more on this versatile category of vessel, visit Chuck Hill's Blog.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Drones and the Human-War Relationship

Robots fascinate humans. They abound in movies: Star Wars, the Terminator, the Matrix. They are a foil for the human condition. In rosy predictions they are like Star Trek’s Data, “perfect” in strength and intellect yet void of emotion. In dystopian futures, killer robots are poetic justice. Created by humanity, robots attempt to annihilate their creators. If told killer robots exist in the U.S. arsenal, most Americans would probably think of “drones.” The name sounds robotic; it implies automaton behavior. Drones lack an onboard crew, and just like robots, drones fascinate Americans. In one important way, however, drones are not robots: they are flown by humans; they are just flown by remote control, but this creates a problem all of its own.
The Armed Forces are not even sure how to deal with drone pilots. The pilots play a pivotal role in combat operations. They make life or death decisions. They press the button to fire missiles. They probably engage in more “lethal actions” than other air units at present. Nevertheless, most fellow service members and the public at large do not think drone pilots hold “combat” jobs. Our system cannot square the responsibilities these service members have with the lack of surrounding danger.
The presence of danger has always been a defining characteristic of war and particularly in the way civilians see the armed forces. While Americans generally no longer glorify the taking of spoils, we do glorify success in the face of adversity and particularly danger. American society regularly “thanks” service members with things like recognition at sporting events and military discounts. These types of recognition purposely avoid mention of the policies those being thanked implement: “Support the Troops, whether you support the war or not.” But that approach only works if service members are seen to represent honorable values like service and sacrifice. Take away the danger and something of those values seems to disappear too.
130424-F-NL936-999.JPG
Of course, some soldiers have always been relatively safe, performing jobs in the rear areas. Most civilians do not see past the uniform, but service members know who is actually at the front (though ironically the insurgencies of the past 40 years have eroded the difference). For those actually pulling the trigger, danger was always at least reciprocal if not near. While an artilleryman might not have been within rifle range of the enemy, he was in range of the enemy’s artillery.  Even ballistic missile crews in the United States were held at risk by their Soviet counterparts during the Cold War.
Drone pilots seem different because there is no reciprocity, but even that does not quite make drone pilots unique. The U.S. government has long looked to reduce danger to service members. Drones are only the latest idea. As the old Army saying goes “Why send a man if you can send a bullet?” The Navy has fully embraced this idea. The ships that launch manned aircraft and Tomahawk cruise missiles (a true killer robot) from the Mediterranean are in no more danger today than if they were training off the coast of California or Virginia. The closest most shipboard sailors have come to fighting in the last 10 years is pressing a button and then rushing to the TV in hopes that CNN will cover the resulting explosions. The Navy still uses the Iranian mine-laying operations in the late 1980s to justify for “imminent danger” pay for crews. If the Navy has not faced the same challenges as the drone community it is principally because distance from American shores obscures what is going on. A similar lack of reciprocity exists for most air and even some ground forces, both masked by distance. Indeed, this lack of reciprocity in many aspects of warfare is inherent to the asymmetric wars in which the United States has engaged.
Wars of the future may ameliorate this problem in some situations but will likely exacerbate in most. As the United States again faces the potential of great power conflict, the likelihood it will face an adversary with advanced air, land, and sear forces greatly increases. Nonetheless, a key lesson of the past decades has been that those who fight the United States on its own terms lose. This situation is likely to remain unchanged for several decades. Thus even great power competitors will seek to field forces that challenge American forces asymmetrically which made lead to situations lacking reciprocity even as the United States continues to develop technology to further protect its service members from danger.
Drones illuminate a problem which has already existed and will only grow in the future: In a society that professes not to value military spoils, how does the relationship with the armed forces change as service members become increasingly removed from danger?
Long-range weapons like artillery, naval gunfire, or close air support in a combined arms environment may suggest an answer. The Marine Corps has best developed this idea. Every Marine who is not primarily a rifleman understands his or her purpose is to support rifleman. For the naval gunnery liaison officer, his or her job directing the shore bombardment in support of forces ashore becomes more important because that officer operates from the relative safety of the ship but his or her actions mean life or death for forces ashore. At their best, these units draw their identity from the support and protection they provide to those in the greatest danger, and those in danger would never deny the importance of that support when well executed.
Without a doubt, danger will never disappear, nor should we reduce efforts to lessen it, but we must begin to think about a how the armed forces will relate to society as fewer service members go in harm’s way. While drones may not actually be robots, in one at least one way their arrival seems to have played a similar role: Drones have highlighted an all too human problem about how people relate to war.
Erik Sand is a Surface Warfare Officer in the U.S. Navy and a graduate of Harvard University. His opinions are his own and do not represent the views of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.  This article was reprinted with permission from the Center for International Maritime Security.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Ever-Expanding Mission Set of Naval Drones

Migrants rescued by the frigate Maestrale. Image courtesy Marina Militare.
Hardly a single naval mission area remains that has been untouched by unmanned systems of the air, surface, or undersea variety.  Most recently, Italy's navy announced that with the help of surveillance from an unmanned air system, 1,049 African migrants en route to Sicily had been rescued.   The ongoing rescue missions are part of Operation "Mare Nostrum"(Our Sea), which has been underway since last fall when over 400 migrants from Eritirea and Syria perished near Italy's coasts. Presumably, the drone the Italians referenced was the ScanEagle, which was initially evaluated for ship-board use in October 2010. Two systems each consisting of 5 fixed-wing aircraft were purchased to be employed by the Maestrale Class Frigate beginning this year.  The Italians also recently acquired the S-100 Camcopter, intended for counter-piracy duties in the Indian Ocean. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

A New Kind of Drone War: UCAV vs. UCLASS

The Australian government recently approved the acquisition of a fleet of US Navy Triton surveillance drones to patrol our oceans. Australia has mostly used Israeli drones to date, such as the Herons in Afghanistan. So as we dip our toes into the American UAV market, it’s worth taking note of a recent development that might be threatening US primacy in this area.
While the Predator and Reaper laid the groundwork for the use of armed drones in warfare, a question remains about the survivability of the technology against modern air defences. Developing a stealthy long-range drone with a decent weapons payload that could go beyond missions in Yemen and Pakistan appeared to be the next order of business for the US, especially in the future Asia-Pacific theatre. Projects like the demonstrator X-47B unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) have shown promise in achieving those missions. But for now the US Navy has decided to go for an unmanned carrier-launched surveillance and strike (UCLASS) system that won’t have the stealth or payload to penetrate air defences.
The UCLASS system will be designed to provide Navy carriers with long-range surveillance and strike capabilities to target terrorists in much the same way as the Air Force’s drones are currently doing from bases around the world. The capacity to carry out those missions without relying on foreign bases is driving this decision, along with lower costs. But the UCLASS system will only operate over states that have limited air defences (because of UCLASS vulnerability) or have provided the US permission to conduct strikes. Al-Qaeda affiliates are on the rise in Syria, where the Assad regime is both hostile toward the US and has the capability to deny drones. This raises the question of how many states will fit this category.
Consequently, at a program cost of US$3.7 billion, the UCLASS won’t provide the degree of innovation the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (PDF) advocated. This would be money better spent on more research and development (R&D) into a UCAV, which could potentially have greater impact in the future strategic environment. Moreover, the UCLASS would be mostly redundant in Asia, the most strategically important future region for the US. UCAVs, on the other hand, could have an impact in, for example, a future conflict with China. According to Mark Gunzinger and Bryan Clark at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), a UCAV with a range of 2,000kms, broadband stealth, a payload to rival the manned F-35C combat aircraft, and a capacity for aerial refueling, is achievable. Developing a UCAV that’s survivable is no mean feat, but the US has a good start in terms of support systems and personnel established over the past few decades.
UCAVs would be capable of rapid deployment from carriers, which could stay out of the range of anti-access threats. A persistent surveillance capability that could also strike vital command and control and air defence sites if required could open the way for follow-on operations by manned aircraft. A UCAV would form a valuable part of the US deep strike suite, a key feature of AirSea Battle (PDF). And while losing platforms is never good, drastically reducing risk to personnel is a major incentive, especially early on in a conflict.
China’s an active player in drone development, and the PLA’s R&D investments are another good reason for the US to think carefully about holding off on UCAV development. China’s Sharp Sword UCAV, which was flight-tested in 2013, shows the PLA’s commitment to creating a mix of manned and unmanned combat aircraft. The growing Chinese defence budget (with a reported increase of a 12% this year) could lead to rapid advances in this area.
Funding the UCAV is the big question considering the cuts to the US defence budget; its price-tag would be heftier than the UCLASS. Proponents of the UCAV such as CSBA and the Center for New American Security (CNAS) (PDF), argue that the money could come from decommissioning two (or possibly more) carrier groups. Budget pressures have already seen cuts and deferrals to the carrier force and it would be a big step to cut two more. What’s important in these perspectives, however, is that the UCAV’s stand-off capacity and flexibility could make each carrier more effective. As Michael O’Hanlon pointed out on TheStrategist last month, capability should be the metric of adequacy, not dollars or hull numbers.
The UCLASS could be redundant by the time it enters service in 2020, even in the targeted killing missions it’s designed to carry-out. A UCAV, on the other hand, would stretch the envelope in relation to advanced technologies, which would contribute to sustaining US strategic advantage. It would enhance a carrier group’s capability to respond to anti-access threats and it could also be versatile enough to respond to terror threats globally. Unmanned systems show no signs of fading into the background, and even in a tight fiscal environment represent a potentially high payoff for R&D funds.
Reprinted with permission from the Center for International Maritime Security. Rosalyn Turner is an intern at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.