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Naval Drones 2012 Year in Review

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What were the top stories in unmanned naval technology during 2012?  What follows is a completely unscientific count-down of the major events related to naval drones over the past year:

10. The Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force captures a flock of Schiebel S-100 UAVs operating from PLAN frigate on film. 9. SAIC was awarded a contract for the planned DARPA ASW drone, Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV), which will autonomously hunt and track diesel subs. 8. DARPA *almost* conducts air-to-air refueling of UAVs.  Trials actually transferring fuel were postponed due to BAMS-D crash (See #3).
7. Kongsberg Maritime's Hydroid subsidiary REMUS mine-hunting AUVs proliferate globally with orders received from UK, Japan, Belgium, Germany, Norway navies.

6. The MD-500 Unmanned Little Bird helicopter of "Black Hawk Down" fame completes sea trials off the US and French Coasts.
5. Who's right? Iran claims to have captured a U.S. Navy ScanEagle UAV …

Unmanned Systems for EM-Cyber Warfare

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In the December 2012 version of Proceedings, the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations discusses how the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum and cyber warfare have become intertwined into a single EM-cyber environment, one which will will have significant implications for future war-fighting.

The CNO argues that the two primary keys to commanding the EM-cyber domain are a knowledge of the environment and agility.  Naval unmanned systems' role in both aspects of this rapidly evolving warfare domain will grow in importance.

The CNO writes that knowing the EM-cyber environment requires the ability to "detect, assess,and predict in real time the activities going on in that domain." Because in most cases, unmanned systems are less expensive to procure than manned platforms, drones dedicated to electronic and cyber warfare can be deployed in large numbers, surveying a wider geographic area.  Additionally, UAVs are rapidly and easily upgraded with new sensors which collect across the elec…

SAIC Reveals New Details on ASW Drone

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Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) has released an updated promotional video on the Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV), a DARPA Tactical Technology Office project to develop an autonomous surface vehicle. ACTUV is specifically designed to conduct long duration autonomous tracking missions against diesel submarines.
The video reveals some interesting new details on the awkwardly-acronymed vessel. The computer-generated vignette shows ACTUV working in conjunction with other platforms to track and prosecute submarines using onboard sensors. These include a mid-frequency active/passive sonar mounted in a pod under the vessel's keel, two high frequency active sonars for localization, and a total-field magnetometer array along the ACTUV's hull for close-in tracking. A very high frequency sonar will then use acoustic imaging to classify the sub. Also interesting are the other possible missions ACTUV could conduct which include:…

Drones of the Navy SEALs

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The mystique of Navy SEALs has been heavily celebrated in the media and films due to recent real world exploits.  Yet Naval Special Warfare (NSW) sailors have been heavily engaged in combat operations for more than eleven consecutive years.  Warfare is still a decidely human endeavor, and America's naval special warriors are quick to embrace the truth that "humans are more important than hardware." Nevertheless, today's SEALs, Special Warfare Combat Crewmen, and other supporting personnel in the NSW community have benefited greatly from technology, which increasingly includes unmanned systems.

Two primary realizations within the NSW community drove the rapid introduction of UAVs for combat operations in Southwest and Central Asia.  The first realization was that even the best shooters in the world were ineffective if they were unable to locate their targets.  Simply, UAVs are a force multiplier for SEALs and enable an exponential increase in their ability to find, fix…

Sea-Based Drones & the Future of Counterterrorism

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In a recent Washington Post editorial, Kimberly and Frederick Kagan take a solid position on why the U.S. should maintain a troop presence to support counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan post-2014. The bulk of their argument for continued U.S. ground deployments revolves around the tyranny of distance’s impact on future counterterrorism (CT) operations against the al Qaeda (AQ) network:

North Waziristan is more than 600 miles from the nearest coastline; the other sanctuaries are farther. The U.S. Air Force reports that armed Predator drones have a range of about 1,150 miles - not enough to get to Waziristan and back again from the coast, much less to orbit and observe a target. Special mission units would have to parachute from transport aircraft because no helicopter in the U.S. inventory can fly that far. But they could not return because aircraft cannot land in the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan or in Pakistan. Manned aircraft can drop precision weapons on targets in Afghan…

Navy Looks to Small Business to Solve RMS Problems‏

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Lockheed Martin's troubled AN/WLD-1 Remote Minehunting System is the key component of the U.S. Navy's Littoral Combat Ship Mine Counter-measures Mission Package (MCM MP) and  has been under development for nearly two decades.   The heart of the system is a diesel-powered, semi-submersible Remote Multi-Mission Vehicle (RMMV)  designed to tow a variable depth mine-hunting sonar.

Testing on RMS prototypes began in 1994, but the system has yet to mature to full operational status.  In an effort to work some of the kinks out of RMS, the Navy's Program Executive Officer for Littoral Combat Ships (PEO LCS)  has sought the assistance of industry via the most recent Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program solicitation.   A solicitation released by the Remote Minehunting System Program Office (PMS 403) entitled "Anticorrosion Solution for Remote Minehunting System (RMS) Tow Cable" seeks to correct early-life saltwater corrosion problems on the stainless steel to…

A Little Friday Humor

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U.S. Navy Blue Angels Demonstration Team, Circa 2020.


H/T: MJ

DIY Naval Drones: Floating Quadcopter

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Multi-rotors have been well-received by hobbyists and even garnered some interest from the U.S. Navy.  But up until now, these lightweight UAVs haven't mixed very well with water.  The guys at Aquacopters have changed this with a water-proofed and ruggedized simple quad-frame.  The ability to capture video above, on, and under the surface of the water with a single small drone creates an interesting range of options for hobby, scientific, commercial, or military use.

Poland's Naval Unmanned Systems Developments

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Although the Polish Navy operates a range of remotely operated vehicles today, there is no yet publicly known autonomous vehicle in operation.   The situation is quickly changing, though.  Three AUV systems planned for mine-hunting use on future patrol ships were mentioned in the Navy's last modernization plan. Additionally, General Skrzypczak, responsible for modernization programs in the Ministry of Defense, recently discussed MoD interest in Unmanned Surface Vessels for port protection and surveillance. These craft are expected to have some limited offensive capability. Not surprisingly, during a visit at this year's Euronaval convention, the Israeli company Rafael introduced the Polish delegation to its latest up-armed version of Protector.  Later it was reported that after the exhibition, an agreement for potential technology transfer between companies (not mentioned by name) was signed. It is an important indication of rapid improvements coming in this long neglected ar…

The Next Wave - Swarming Underwater Drones

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Experimentation with large numbers of low cost quadrotors operating in swarms has produced some interesting results, including potential for future military applications.  Now some researchers in Germany are working to transition these concepts to the underwater realm, building autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) that behave like fish in a school.  A team at the University of Luebeck's Institute of Computer Engineering has developed an affordable AUV designed for environmental surveys called MONitoring System and Underwater Navigation Robot (MONSUN) II.

MONSUN II is a 4 kilogram AUV equipped with a series of vertical and horizontal thrusters to maneuver and maintain orientation.  The vehicle maintains its position relative to other AUVs in the school using infrared sensors and a nose camera with a form of computer image recognition called "blob detection." 
The swarming technology demonstrated by MONSUN vehicles is designed to overcome several of the limiting factors…

U.S. CNO Makes Unmanned Systems a Priority

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In a nod to maritime tradition, the new Chief of Naval Operations set forth a "Navigation Plan" with budgetary priorities and a route to achieve the vision he set in the "Sailing Directions" for 2013-2017.  Admiral Greenert's prioritization of unmanned systems for the U.S. fleet in these documents is anything but archaic.  Seven of the CNO's 34 budget focus areas directly address unmanned systems, including: "Increase near-term mine warfare capability with Quickstrike mines; the Seafox Mine Neutralization System; upgraded MCM-1 class ship sonar, hull, and engineering upgrades; and Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUV) for shallow and bottom mine detection. Improve near-term capability to counter fast attack craft by fielding enhanced gun and surface-to-surface missile systems for Patrol Coastal (PC) ships and Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) and laser-guided rockets for helicopters and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV). Move new platforms under development and con…

Armed USVs: A Deeper Dive

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The U.S. Navy's recent testing of a Protector unmanned surface vessel with the Precision Engagement Module (PEM) weapons system warrants deeper analysis than provided by news reporting.  The project is sponsored by the Chief of Naval Operation's Expeditionary Warfare Division (N95) and the Naval Sea Systems Command's Naval Special Warfare Program Office.  To understand the ramifications of this testing, it's worthwhile to elaborate a bit on the components that make up the PEM:
Protector USV - The U.S. Navy's Protector is a joint development between Israel's Rafael, BAE Systems, and Lockeed Martin.  Originally conceived as a platform for force protection and port security, the 11 meter vessel's new armament opens up a range of possibilities for future employment (discussed below).  Much like a UAV, the Protector requires two operators based ashore or at at sea; one to drive the vessel and the other to operate the sensors and armament.

Toplite EOS -The Protect…

The Evolution of Drone Motherships - Part I

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As long as physical limitations constrain the range and endurance of unmanned air, surface, and sub-surface vehicles, they will need to operate in conjunction with larger platforms.  These motherships serve a wide variety of functions besides simply transporting, launching, and recovering unmanned vehicles.  They maintain and repair the drones, recharge or refuel their propulsion sytems, and they enable data collected from unmanned sensors to be downloaded, analyzed, and disseminated beyond the line-of-sight.  Characterizing the evolution of these unmanned vehicle motherships can help extrapolate how they might be used in the future.

Generation I - Ad hoc platforms: This category includes legacy naval vessels ranging in size from patrol craft (US SOCOM's MK V at right, with ScanEagle) to large amphibious ships, and likely some day, aircraft carriers.  Minesweeping and hunting vessels have carried remotely operated vehicles for decades now, and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs)…

China's Expanding Maritime UAS Fleet

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Unmanned systems have not been excluded from China's rapid naval expansion and modernization program.  Last month, China's State Oceanic Administration (SOA) announced it would establish a string of UAV surveillance and monitoring bases in provinces along China’s coastline by 2015.  The SOA will also use drones to increase surveillance of the disputed Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands in the South China Sea. 

In keeping with this announcement, China Maritime Surveillance (CMS), a law enforcement agency under control of SOA responsible for law enforcement within the PRC's territorial waters, exclusive economic zones (EEZ), and shores, awarded two contracts this week to the French DCNS Group.  CMS will purchase landing grids for two planned CMS 1,500 ton off-shore patrol vessels to be delivered in 2013.  The DCNS landing grids allow helicopters and vertical take-off-and landing (VTOL) UAVs fitted with a harpoon to land or take off from a ship's deck in adverse sea conditions.…

What You Can’t Find…

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A frequently cited fact in my days training to be a naval officer was that the most common weapon for damaging a warship since World War II was the naval mine. The recently concluded International Mine Countermeasures Exercise 2012 (IMCMEX 12), held in 3 distinct OPAREAs throughout the U.S. Fifth Fleet Area of Responsibility (AOR), demonstrated both the difficulty of mine countermeasures (MCM) operations (detecting and clearing mines) and the potential of new technology to mitigate those dangers.
PBS’ News Hour quotes a retired naval officer and observer of the exercise, Capt. Robert O’Donnell, stating of the 29 simulated mines in the exercise, “I don’t think a great many were found…It was probably around half or less.”

The response from the Navy is a little confusing:
The Navy declined to provide data on how many practice mines were located during the two-week naval drill but did not dispute that less than half were found. However, a spokesman insisted that the figures do not tell th…

Naval Drone Tech: Countering UUVs

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As the recent Israeli shootdown of a Hezbollah UAV reminded us, it is relatively easy to destroy an unmanned aircraft. But what about the proliferating numbers of unmanned undersea vehicles?  The growth in these systems for naval applications will inevitably result in the requirement to counter an adversary's underwater drones.  Detection of a small man-made object moving underwater is not trivial, but also becoming easier with the advent of technologies such as high-resolution imaging sonars and Light Detection And Ranging (LIDAR) systems.

However, once an AUV is detected, how can it be destroyed?  This problem set isn't new. Mini-subs and combat swimmers have threatened ships in port since World War II.  The old school way of dealing with frogmen is to drop a concussion grenade over the side of a boat.  Alternatively, some navies have experimented with dolphins to counter swimmers.  These sorts of mammal-based systems could conceivably be trained to work against AUVs.  Ot…

Future Drone Power - Part III: Fill'r Up

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As a follow-up to our posts on powering drones in the future, Bluefin Robotics recently announced a unique concept: deep sea stations that recharge autonomous underwater vehicles.  The system is designed to wirelessly charge a Bluefin 9 AUV's 1.5 kWh lithium-polymer Subsea Battery using inductive coils. In addition to recharging the vehicle, the system has the added bonus of downloading data from the vehicle and transmitting it back to a home base.  The glut of data collected by modern 2 and 3D imaging sonars will require this sort of flexibility on long endurance AUV missions.

The future naval implications of this technology are expansive, however the actual implementation might be challenging.  The system would work well in a permanent installation with AUVs on patrol keeping keep a navy port clear of mines or swimmers.  In an expeditionary environment for say a mine-hunting mission, recharging stations might be installed by buoy tenders and kept powered from surface buoys with…

Israeli Shot-Down Drone Sea Launched?

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Much speculation has occured regarding the mystery UAV the Israeli Air Force shot down over the Negev Desert last Saturday.  A number of interesting theories have been proposed, including those connecting the drone with naval activity:
The Hezbollah-affiliated al-Mayadeen channel reported Sunday that the drone originated in Lebanon and flew 100 km into Israeli airspace, however the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon did not detect any UAVs leaving Lebanese airspace.  Lebanese Hezbollah (LH) has been bolstering its UAV force with Iranian built tactical UAVs, so it might be possible that an aircraft flew undetected through across the border.  The Israelis confirmed the drone did not originate in Gaza and some sources to point to Lebanon.  The problem is that the aircraft would have flown at least 200 km and LH probably doesn't possess any UAVs in the inventory capable of this range.Twitterati@drunkenpredatorspeculates that the aircraft might have been an Ababil 3, launched at s…