Friday, August 31, 2012

Dual-Use Drone Swarms

Last winter over at Information Dissemination, I made the observation that swarming robots will irreversibly transform warfare, and I hold to that argument.  The discussion and progress in this area is developing quickly.  Much of this conversation involves non-military uses for drone technology, but as with many tools, there are also applications for warfare.  A host of militarily-useful scenarios can be envisioned to employ very small unmanned naval platforms in a non-lethal fashion.

In the videos below, quadrotors are used to perform simple construction tasks. The technology that is today viewed as modern performance art could some day be utilized to build an expeditionary forward operating base remotely.  A C-130 would fly over a likely FOB site and deploy hundreds of UAVs, which would quickly go to work filling Hesco Barriers and building fighting positions all night long based on a pre-programmed design, a scoop of sand at a time.  Out of power, the drones could then land on the FOB and relay observations to the incoming troops. The site would be defensible as soon as the first Marines arrived, leaving Sea Bees for more valuable construction projects.


Researchers in the UK are developing autonomous vehicles which will replace the tedious role of scuba divers who painstakingly seed damaged coral reefs.  The alternative being worked is to allow “multiple small autonomous robots follow a simple set of rules and seek out coral fragments and re-cement them to the reef. But first the robot needs to be driven by a computer 'trained' to recognise coral fragments from other objects such as rocks, litter, sponges and other sea creatures… The swarm of autonomous underwater robots will operate according to a simple set of 'micro-rules' to seek out coral fragments and re-cement them to the reef.”

A swarm of nano-UUVs similarly equipped as the “coralbots” could quietly infiltrate an enemy naval port and use sensors and algorithms to recognize seawater intakes on ships.  These intakes are indispensable on just about every vessel and are used for heat exchangers cooling engines and various pumps, to make fresh water for the crew, and to propel water-jet equipped ships like the LCS.  The UUVs could inject a combination of mud or sand scooped up from the harbor with epoxy into these intakes, effectively rendering the fleet useless and unable to get underway.  A similar attack could gunk up the intakes to power plants, refineries, and other coastal infrastructure.

The idea of drones mimicking insects might have other applications. Like bees or fire ants who can subdue a much larger predator, disposable micro-UAVs – too small to defeat with CIWS or other weapons systems – might swarm an Aegis combatant, each spraying a tiny amount of radar absorbent paint on the SPY array, achieving a mission kill of the most powerful air and missile defense system in the world. 
Of course, these sorts of aerial swarms might be vulnerable to jamming, EMP, and the like, but here, LT Matt Hipple offers some recommendations to build resiliency into drone swarms.   The rapid evolution of drone swarm technology can be expected to continue until concepts like these are deployed operationally; likely sometime in the next decade.

The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the US Navy, or any other agency.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

India’s Growing Unmanned Naval Fleet

India has one of the world’s largest Navies, with bluewater responsibilities and more than 7,500 kilometers of coastlines and hundreds of islands to patrol.  Besides the ever-present concern of Pakistan and China looming to the east, the Navy keeps busy supporting international counter-piracy efforts and protecting her coastlines from terrorist operatives such as LeT, who infiltrated via the sea to attack Mumbai in 2008.

With a 2012 budget just shy of $6.5 billion USD, the Navy makes up only 20% of India’s overall defense expenditures.  Nevertheless, unmanned systems appear to be an important component of the Navy’s ongoing modernization efforts to upgrade and from outdated Soviet-era platforms.  India’s Navy reportedly has over 100 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) flying since 2003 and deployed with three squadrons.  These aircraft will complement twelve manned P-8I Neptune maritime patrol aircraft entering service in 2013. Earlier this year, some of these UAVs participated in TROPEX, India’s largest annual naval exercise.

India Naval Air UAV Squadrons

INAS 342 – “Flying Sentinels”
INS Kochi
Heron and Searcher II
INAS 343 – “Frontier Formidables”
Porbandar, Gujarat
Heron and Searcher II
INAS 344 – “Spirited Shadowers”
INS Parundu, Uchipuli, Tamil Nadu
Heron and Searcher II

The capital drones of India’s fleet are the Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI) Heron medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAV equipped with radar and electro-optical sensors for maritime surveillance.  The Herons are complemented by smaller IAI Searcher II UAVs, one of which crashed in Eastern India in February 2012 while reportedly conducting surveillance against Naxalite insurgents. The navy is also part of the joint development of the Rostom UAV, first flown in 2010, which is expected to feature an armed variant. 

The extent of India’s employment of sea-launched UAVs is unclear, although according to Schiebel, the Navy has conducted trials with the S-100.  In 2008, India began joint development on IAI's Malat Naval Rotary UAV (NRUAV) system for the Chetak (Alouette III).  The NRUAV replaces a manned helicopter's avionics with the flight control system from IAI's Heron UAV. The NRUAV is designed to carry a variety of ISR payloads including SAR, EO, and SIGINT. The system would be capable of missions 6 hours in duration at a range of 120 km from the launching ship.  More UAV’s based at sea can be expected given India’s progressing indigenous Aircraft Carrier program.  India’s Coast Guard, which is responsible for protecting the country’s two million square kilometer Exclusive Economic Zone, has reportedly acquired several indigenous Nishant catapult-launched tactical UAVs.
Photo Courtesy CMERI

India’s foray into unmanned naval systems isn’t limited to aircraft.  The 490 kg Autonomous Undersea Vehicle 150 (AUV-150) was developed by Central Mechanical Engineering Research Institute (CMERI), in Durgapur and conducted sea trials in early 2011 off Chennai.  The AUV is designed to collect oceanographic data down to 150 meters, along with supporting mine countermeasures operations, cable, and pipeline surveys.
In April 2012, sport-utility vehicle maker Mahindra & Mahindra announced a joint venture with Israel’s Rafael, maker of the Protector UAV, to produce unmanned surface vehicles for force protection at a factory in Pune.   Clearly, unmanned platforms are destined to play an increasing role for India’s burgeoning global fleet.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Wave-powered USV’s for Future Naval Intelligence Collection

NOAA recently deployed a Liquid Robotics Wave Rider to help track hurricanes in the Atlantic. The robot, called Alex, has operated on the fringes of hurricane Isaac, and has sensors to gather data on surface winds, barometric pressure, and wave characteristics.  Alex joins the other autonomous vehicles in NOAA’s fleet (see live data feeds here). 

 Wave Glider Video from AUVSI 2012 (courtesy Liquid Robotics)

In addition to collecting oceanographic data, these types of USVs may someday serve as affordable naval intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms.  The technologies required to autonomously operate for long periods at sea, recharge batteries via solar panels, collect oceanography data, and transmit that data thousands of miles is directly applicable to ISR missions.  The miniaturization of sensors will enable platforms like the Wave Glider to conduct long range duration intelligence collection patrols that are currently conducted by ships and submarines at a fraction of the cost and manpower.  A small low-profile USV could discretely operate off an enemy coast relaying signals intelligence or acoustic data back to a mother ship or home base.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Wireless Energy Transmission: Powering Future Naval Drones

Unmanned aerial systems have delivered affordable intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to smaller naval vessels that were previously unique to much larger platforms. In the past decade, small tactical unmanned aerial systems (STUAS) have enabled ground and sea forces operating in the Philippines, Southwest Asia, and Africa to see over the next ridgeline or island, well beyond their line of sight. The introduction of wireless power transmission will add yet another capability to the utility of these naval drones.

Lockheeed Martin Skunkworks and Kent, Washington-based company Lasermotive recently demonstrated the ability to recharge the batteries of small, electrically-powered unmanned aircraft in-flight, radically extending the endurance of these tactical drones. In July 2012, a Stalker UAV powered by laser transmission flew for 48 hours in a wind tunnel. As a point of comparison, the normal endurance of this drone is only 2 hours, a difference of 2400%. Follow on tests occurred in the desert, under less simulated conditions.

Laser power beaming works much like solar power in that a high intensity laser is aimed at specialized photovoltaic cells which convert the light to electricity. The laser is steered by a beam director controlled by a tracking system and can be mounted on land, a ship, or even another aircraft. Ironically, the U.S. Navy’s pursuit of directed energy weapons to counter enemy unmanned vehicles may evolve one day into a capability to power its own drones. In 2010 the Navy demonstrated the Laser Weapons System (LaWS) at sea, an array of six 5.5-kW industrial fiber lasers on the former USS Paul Foster test ship. Another laser system was tested in August 2012 on the destroyer USS Dewey. Lasers do have drawbacks for this application. First, they are limited to line-of-site, but range can be extended via airborne mirror relays. The effectiveness of lasers can also be disturbed by atmospheric interference, especially at sea level. The Navy is working on technologies to mitigate these propagation issues.

However, lasers aren’t the only means by which future naval drones could be powered. Nikola Tesla first tested wireless electrical transmission using electromagnetic energy in the late Nineteenth Century. Today, while numerous start-up companies are working to commercialize “WiTricity”or “WiPower,” the Navy’s nearly ubiquitous AN/SPY-1 phased-array radar offers another possibility for wirelessly powering naval drones. By steering individual beams, the radar could potentially serve as an afloat recharging station for passing drones.

Currently, only smaller drones such as the Stalker and AeroVironment Puma are electrically powered. But given this new technology, larger UAVs including the Scan Eagle could be modified from internal combustion engines to work via wireless power transmission. The operational possibilities offered by wirelessly powering drones are extensive. A laser-equipped surface vessel of any size transiting a strait or other chokepoint could continuously power a STUAS, greatly increasing its sensor range and enhancing its awareness of other surface contacts. Other naval UAVs could be sea-launched then “refueled” by orbiting laser aircraft or ground stations to conduct long duration over-land ISR.

Even farther into the future, wireless energy transmission will power naval drone swarms. Someday, large groups of unmanned air or surface vehicles mimicking natural formations of birds or schools of fish will operate autonomously to collect intelligence, attack enemy ships, and any other number of missions. To date, drone swarm technology has been simulated using small quadrotors, which are limited by payload, extremely short flight time and range. Though in October 2010, LaserMotive powered an electric quadrotor drone for over 12 hours, proving that longer duration drone swarms powered remotely from afloat or ashore are possible.