Military aspires to launch drones from ocean floor
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.