Mil­i­tary as­pires to launch drones from ocean floor

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY JACQUELINE KLI­MAS

Drones that can hi­ber­nate for years on the ocean floor be­fore be­ing re­motely ac­ti­vated to burst through the sur­face and into the air could be a re­al­ity soon as mil­i­tary re­searchers begin testing the tech­nol­ogy this year.

The drone op­er­a­tion, which the U.S. mil­i­tary dubbed the Up­ward Fall­ing Pay­load pro­gram, is just one ex­am­ple of re­search con­ducted by the De­fense Ad­vanced Re­search Projects Agency. The agency is try­ing to take a fresh look at what mil­i­tary tech­nol­ogy is needed af­ter fo­cus­ing specif­i­cally on as­sets for two ground wars over the past 14 years, said Arati Prab­hakar, direc­tor of DARPA.

Steven H. Walker, deputy direc­tor of DARPA, said the Up­ward Fall­ing Pay­load pro­gram in­volves sev­eral tech­no­log­i­cal chal­lenges, such as how to re­motely trig­ger the launch, how to get the drone to float to the sur­face, and how to power and pro­tect the sys­tem on the ocean floor for more than a year.

“To­day, the U.S. Navy puts ca­pa­bil­ity on the ocean floor us­ing very ca­pa­ble but fairly ex­pen­sive sub­ma­rine plat­forms,” Mr. Walker said. “What we’d like to do in this pro­gram is prepo­si­tion ca­pa­bil­ity on the ocean floor and have it be avail­able to be trig­gered [in] real time, when you need it.”

U.S. mil­i­tary drones pa­trol the skies in the Mid­dle East and are re­spon­si­ble for car­ry­ing out airstrikes on the en­emy, but un­der­wa­ter drones have re­ceived less recog­ni­tion. The Navy has been us­ing ocean-faring drones called Slocum Glid­ers to scan the sea and trans­mit in­for­ma­tion — mostly weather and sur­veil­lance data — to ships.

Un­like their aerial coun­ter­parts, the sea­far­ing drones don’t need fuel to op­er­ate. In­stead, they use ocean cur­rents for propul­sion and their buoy­ancy to shift di­rec­tion.

Still, ocean drones largely have been used only for in­for­ma­tion­gath­er­ing and are not looked at as po­ten­tial weapons or some­thing to be used above sea level — an out­look DARPA is seek­ing to change.

DARPA re­searchers will go out on the ocean this year to test var­i­ous tech­nolo­gies. They hope to cre­ate a func­tion­ing sys­tem even­tu­ally and gain valu­able in­for­ma­tion about how those net­works could be use­ful, Mr. Walker said.

The Up­ward Fall­ing Pay­load and other projects were in­cluded in a re­port re­leased last week that de­tailed some projects DARPA will pur­sue over the next two years.

An­other project is de­vel­op­ing “sub­u­lites,” which rest on the ocean floor and can help de­tect en­emy sub­marines, Mr. Walker said.

Just as satel­lites can give wide views of the ground from space, sub­u­lites can get a broad look at the ocean to track sub­marines un­til other as­sets ar­rive to track, trail or tar­get the threat, the re­port said.

The sea is only one area of fo­cus for DARPA. Re­searchers also are look­ing at im­prove­ments in mil­i­tary tech­nol­ogy for air, space, land, the elec­tro­mag­netic spec­trum and cy­ber­se­cu­rity.

Ms. Prab­hakar, the agency’s direc­tor, said cy­ber­se­cu­rity is of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est be­cause the U.S. needs to be able to de­tect and pre­vent cy­ber­at­tacks, not just re­spond to vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties in the “patch and pray” sys­tem.

“The rea­son I think we have to change the cy­ber­se­cu­rity game that we’re in right now is pre­cisely that all the prow­ess of our con­ven­tional ca­pa­bil­i­ties is mean­ing­less in this en­vi­ron­ment,” she said.

Re­searchers are work­ing on a vi­su­al­iza­tion tool to let strate­gists and war fighters plan ac­tions in the ab­stract cy­ber domain with re­duced train­ing, she said, as well as build­ing sys­tems that can’t be hacked and au­tomat­ing cy­berde­fenses to al­low for quicker re­sponses to in­ci­dents.

Although such ad­vance­ments will im­prove U.S. cy­ber­se­cu­rity ca­pa­bil­i­ties, Ms. Prab­hakar said, they will never reach 100 per­cent pro­tec­tion be­cause hack­ers keep im­prov­ing.

“In­vul­ner­a­bil­ity is not a fu­ture state. We’re kid­ding our­selves be­cause hu­man be­ings are so cre­ative,” she said. “But a sig­nif­i­cant ad­van­tage, yes, I think that is some­thing we achieve by us­ing th­ese tools and tech­niques.”

Some of the pro­grams may not be fea­si­ble un­der the tight­ened bud­get en­vi­ron­ment. DARPA’s bud­get de­clined by 20 per­cent from 2009 to 2013, with 8 per­cent com­ing from the first se­ques­tra­tion hit in 2013. Those cuts meant some pro­grams couldn’t be started, some had to be ended be­fore they reached cer­tain mile­stones, and re­searchers in each of the mil­i­tary ser­vices had to wait longer to get flight time or sea time to test their in­no­va­tions.


A BQM-74E drone launches from the flight deck of the Oliver Haz­ard Perry-class guided-mis­sile frigate USS Un­der­wood dur­ing a live-fire drone ex­er­cise on the Caribbean Sea.

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