Robot subs power up

Firms vie to give Navy unmanned spy-scout

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NEWS - AARON GREGG

More than a decade after air­borne drones took flight over bat­tle­fields, the world’s big­gest de­fense man­u­fac­tur­ers are eye­ing a new mar­ket be­low the ocean’s sur­face.

The Navy re­cently opened up a com­pe­ti­tion for unmanned sub­marines that can nav­i­gate au­tonomously. Chicago-based Boe­ing has taken an early lead in the fledg­ling mar­ket. The com­pany has de­vel­oped a 51-foot-long ves­sel called the Echo Voy­ager to com­pete for the con­tract, and last year it bought a com­pany called Liq­uid Robotics that fo­cuses on smaller unmanned subs.

Bethesda, Md.-based com­peti­tor Lock­heed Martin is also com­pet­ing for the con­tract, a com­pany spokesman said, and it, too, is now ramp­ing up its ef­forts by in­vest­ing in an­other com­pany spe­cial­iz­ing in the au­ton­o­mous wa­ter­craft.

The com­pany’s tech­nol­ogy in­vest­ment unit, Lock­heed Martin Ven­tures, is back­ing a San Diego-based com­pany called Ocean Aero, which makes var­i­ous classes of sea­far­ing drones, termed unmanned un­der­wa­ter ve­hi­cles, or UUVs. The size and terms of the trans­ac­tion were not dis­closed. The ven­ture unit typ­i­cally makes in­vest­ments of $1 mil­lion to $5 mil­lion.

“This just speaks to how big the unmanned sys­tems mar­ket has be­come, that you have Boe­ing and Lock­heed go­ing at this full speed,” Ocean Aero Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Eric Pat­ten said.

Ocean Aero makes a 13-foot-long, bat­tery-pow­ered sub­ma­rine called the Sub­maran S10. The S10 can loi­ter on the sur­face or dive to a rel­a­tively shal­low 30 feet. It can nav­i­gate au­tonomously based on pre­pro­grammed way-points and is out­fit­ted to scout for and hide from threats com­pletely on its own. It can recharge its bat­tery on the sur­face us­ing tiny so­lar pan­els or raise a sail to har­ness the wind for propul­sion, which the man­u­fac­turer calls “en­ergy scav­eng­ing.” The S10 has al­ready been sold to two undis­closed cus­tomers.

The com­pany plans to in­tro­duce a larger model called the S200 next year that can travel faster and dive deeper. It is about to start test­ing a 39-foot-long model it calls the Silent Ar­row that aims to dive to about 650 feet and nav­i­gate with the help of an elec­tronic thruster.

Pat­ten says the Silent Ar­row sub­ma­rine po­si­tions the com­pany for fu­ture Navy com­pe­ti­tions.

“When the com­pe­ti­tion started in Jan­uary, we weren’t in a po­si­tion to com­pete,” he said. “Now we’re in a po­si­tion to com­pete for that.”

Ocean Aero is part of a nascent yet crowded field of star­tups that has emerged in tan­dem with smaller, more fail-safe lithium-ion bat­ter­ies.

The in­dus­try is re­spond­ing to a new school of thought in the up­per ech­e­lons of the U.S. mil­i­tary. Agen­cies are looking to use ad­vances in robotics and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence as “force mul­ti­pli­ers,” with the idea that com­bat-ca­pa­ble ro­bots will aug­ment but not re­place hu­mans in the wars of the fu­ture.

The Air Force is work­ing on ro­botic drones that would fly along­side fighter jets, scout ahead and ab­sorb en­emy fire. The Army is ex­per­i­ment­ing with small-scale re­con­nais­sance ro­bots. Even U.S. law en­force­ment of­fi­cers are buy­ing in. Last year Dal­las po­lice used a robot out­fit­ted with C-4 ex­plo­sives to re­motely kill a gun­man who had killed five po­lice of­fi­cers.

Some worry that in­volv­ing ro­bots in mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions could im­peril hu­man lives and in­flame con­flict.

In Au­gust, Tesla Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Elon Musk and 115 robotics and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence ex­perts wrote an open let­ter to the United Na­tions urg­ing the body to “pro­tect us all” from au­ton­o­mous weaponry, de­scrib­ing it as a dan­ger­ous es­ca­la­tion in mil­i­tary tech­nol­ogy.

“Once de­ployed, they will per­mit armed con­flict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at time scales faster than hu­mans can com­pre­hend,” they wrote.

“Th­ese are weapons of ter­ror, weapons that despots and ter­ror­ists use against in­no­cent pop­u­la­tions, and weapons hacked to be­have in un­ex­pected ways.”

Lock­heed and Boe­ing ar­gue that the ro­botic sub­marines could one day be­come the Navy’s ro­botic scouts, aug­ment­ing the ef­forts of the Navy’s lim­ited and ag­ing fleet of manned sub­marines.

“My main chal­lenge in the Navy was there were many de­mands for what people wanted a sub­ma­rine to do and you couldn’t come close to meet­ing all of them,” said Mike Con­nor, a re­tired Navy vice ad­mi­ral and sub­ma­rine force com­man­der who now runs a com­pany called Thayer-Ma­han.

Au­ton­o­mous wa­ter­craft “could make each one of those sub­marines and de­stroy­ers that much more pow­er­ful and im­pact­ful by or­ders of mag­ni­tude,” he said.

Ocean Aero’s ro­botic sub­marines are likely to be priced in the hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars each, and in the tens of mil­lions for the larger mod­els. That’s sig­nif­i­cantly cheaper than the manned nu­clear sub­marines that now pa­trol the wa­ters.

Ocean Aero’s ro­botic sub­marines “can’t do ev­ery­thing a nor­mal sub­ma­rine can do, and we would prob­a­bly never want them to,” Pat­ten said. “But they can be tasked with things that might waste a nor­mal sub­ma­rine’s time. It would free up the more ca­pa­ble sub­marines.”

For now, the small sub­marines are be­ing pitched mainly as a sur­veil­lance tool. Of­fi­cials at Lock­heed Martin say Ocean Aero’s sub­marines are most likely to be used to map mar­itime threats, sim­i­lar to how U.S. mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence agen­cies al­ready use satel­lites and aerial drones to col­lect in­for­ma­tion from above.

“We’ll be putting eyes and ears more dis­tant from the force to col­lect in­for­ma­tion,” said Chris Mo­ran, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Lock­heed Martin Ven­tures.

But more dan­ger­ous mis­sions could soon fol­low for the Navy’s ro­bots.

The Navy has ac­tively tested unmanned un­der­wa­ter drones’ abil­ity to find and dis­able mines, hop­ing they will one day pro­tect air­craft car­ri­ers in hos­tile ter­ri­tory. It’s not out of the ques­tion that the ro­botic sub­marines could be used to ac­tively at­tack en­emy sub­marines.

Ocean Aero’s Silent Ar­row, its largest sub­ma­rine at 39 feet long, can carry up to 2,000 pounds worth of equip­ment, mean­ing it the­o­ret­i­cally could be out­fit­ted with ad­vanced weaponry.

“It can carry a pretty large pay­load,” Lock­heed’s Mo­ran said. “That was one of the big at­trac­tions for us.”

Wash­ing­ton Post/Ocean Aero

The 13-foot Ocean Aero Sub­maran S10 can sail the ocean sur­face and dive to 30 feet, nav­i­gat­ing au­tonomously us­ing pre­pro­grammed way-points. It has the abil­ity to scout out and hide from threats on its own.

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