Like a swarm of angry bees, unmanned aerial, ground, and sea vehicles automonously converge on enemy troops, aircraft and ships, decide what to do, then engage the enemy with surveillance or weapons to help U.S. forces defeat them. All this without direct human intervention. Sounds like science fiction? The American military is one of several working on the technology, called “swarming,” in order to make this scenario a reality.
According to the SWARMS project at the University of Pennsylvania, future military missions will rely on large, networked groups of small unmanned vehicles and sensors. Groups of this type will typically operate with little or no direct human supervision most of the time. It will be very difficult, if not impossible, to guarantee individual management or control in the kind of dynamic, resource-constrained, adversarial environments that characterize human warfare. Managing such large groups will thus be extremely challenging, and will require the application of new, yet-to-be-developed methods of communication, control, computation and sensing, specifically tailored to the command and control of large-scale, autonomous vehicle groups.
DID has more on a recent NAVAIR contract, and the swarm concept…
The Columbia Group, a small business based in Washington, DC received a $10.6 million firm-fixed-price contract to provide 3 Pluto Plus unmanned undersea vehicles (UUV), associated technical support and training to the Egyptian Navy under the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. The Pluto Plus system is a remotely operated UUV intended primarily for military use in mine identification and destruction.
Work is beginning on a $9.9 million Unmanned Anti-Submarine Warfare Support Facility, which will be located at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division, Newport. A World War II era building, originally built as a steam plant on the waterfront of Narragansett Bay, will be converted to support integrated testing and evaluation of USVs (Unmanned surface Vehicles) and UUVs (Unmanned Undersea Vehicles) on the Narragansett Range. The instrumented range will be used for testing UUVs and USVs, swimmer delivery systems, payloads, torpedoes, targets, underwater surveillance, swimmer defense systems and related undersea technologies.
The architectural and engineering design portion of the project was awarded March 6/09 to AECOM Services, Inc. of Roanoke, VA. Construction is expected to begin in May 2010, with the building’s new tenants expecting to move in around November 2011. US Navy release.
Something big is going on in the history of war, and maybe even humanity itself. The US military went into Iraq with just a handful of drones in the air and zero unmanned systems on the ground, none of them armed. Today, there are over 5,300 drones in the US inventory and another roughly 12,000 on the ground. And these are just the first generation, the Model T Fords compared to what is already in the prototype stage. This is what is happening now. Peering forward, one Air Force lieutenant general forecast that “given the growth trends, it is not unreasonable to postulate future conflicts involving tens of thousands.”
For my book Wired for War, I spent the last several years trying to capture this historic moment, as robots begin to move into the fighting of our human wars. The book features stories and anecdotes of everyone from robotic scientists and the science fiction writers who inspire them to 19 year old drone pilots and the Iraqi insurgents they are fighting. The hope wasn’t just to take the reader on a journey to meet this new generation of warriors–both human and machine, but also to explore the fascinating, and sometimes frightening, political, economic, legal and ethical questions that our society had better start facing in how our wars will be fought and who will fight them. In other words, “What happens when science fiction becomes battlefield reality?”
Despite all the enthusiasm in military circles for the next generation of unmanned vehicles, ships, and planes, there is one question, however, that people are generally reluctant to talk about. It is the equivalent of Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter, the issue That-Must-Not-Be-Discussed. What happens to the human role in war as we arm ever more intelligent, more capable, and increasingly more autonomous robots?
What happens when advances in modern electronics mean that sensors like imaging-class radars, advanced day/night cameras, and even more exotic items like hyperspectral sensors, laser radars, etc. are no longer very expensive items that are mounted on dedicated platforms? When a wide array of video cameras, surveillance turrets, ubiquitous radar capabilities, and other systems built into vehicles, aircraft, ships, and unmanned vehicles provide an explosion of sensor data – just as a range of databases related to human patterns or physical infrastructure are also appearing on the scene, in numbers.
In part, it is similar to what happened when the Internet went from an academic platform to a global phenomenon. The good news was, so much more information became available. The bad news was, finding the things we were looking for started to involve a lot more work.
The military has this same problem with sensors, only worse. Most of the time, they’re not necessarily looking for discrete answers, but for an overall picture of what’s going on. That becomes hard as sensors move from a small number deployed on dedicated platforms, to hundreds or thousands of them employed in platforms of every shape and size. For some applications, like domestic security or protecting certain key areas, it gets even harder. The need to include physical surveillance, communications surveillance, information about human activities, and improved geo-awareness all combine to produce a maddeningly complex task.
Moore’s Law of doubling computing power, and Metcalfe’s Law of exponential network power, created this data explosion. Several cycles later, the military is hoping it can begin to offer assistance, by turning massive arrays of data into coherent systems that help humans respond at the speed of events. The first step was data fusion. The next step was sensor fusion. The third step is information fusion… and the US Navy has just set up a center to work on it.
Unmanned Underwater Vehicles are becoming increasingly popular for a number of roles, including mine detection, advance scouting roles against enemy vessels, and basic hydrographic work. With nuclear submarines costing $2 billion and more per boat, an inexpensive surrogate that could handle some of the most dangerous jobs seems like an obvious addition – especially given the popularity of well-understood torpedo-like designs for key naval UUVs like Remus family, Bluefin-21 et. al.
Launching these UUVs is no challenge. Just build them to the 21-inch diameter limit and use the torpedo tubes. The thing is, submarines have a more restricted carrying capacity than most people think; even the US Virginia Class can carry only 26 total torpedoes, anti-ship missiles, and torpedo-like UUVs. That makes one-shot UUVs unacceptably expensive. In order to be effective, submarines will have to do something not normally done with torpedoes – recover them at the end of their mission. Enter the Long-Term Mine Reconnaissance System (LMRS), now known as the AN/BLQ-11 UUV…
If you want to keep track of key Pentagon programs, Selected Acquisition Reports are an important resource. Shortly after the defense budget is submitted, the Pentagon releases details on major defense acquisition program cost, schedule, and performance changes on a periodic basis, summarizing the latest estimates of a major program’s cost, schedule, and technical status. Quarterly SARs are submitted for initial reports, final reports, and for programs that are rebaselined at major milestone decisions. Subsequent quarterly exception reports are required only for those programs experiencing unit cost increases of at least 15%, or schedule delays of at least 6 months.
Total program cost estimates provided in the SARs include research and development, procurement, military construction, and acquisition-related operation and maintenance (except for pre-Milestone B programs which are development costs only). Total program costs reflect actual costs to date, as well as future anticipated costs, and include anticipated inflation allowances.
Hydroid, LLC at the has carved out a very strong position in the global market for unmanned anti-mine underwater vehicles. Its modular Remote Environmental Measuring Unit (REMUS) systems were developed at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and are already serving with Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, the US Navy, and the UK’s Royal Navy.
BAE Systems has been racing to catch up, rapidly developing their Talisman UUV using fast, iterative prototyping. The UK MoD continues to purchase Hydroid systems thus far, however, including a recent GBP 5.5 million (about $11.1 million) purchase of 2 complete Remus 600 systems for mine countermeasures work.
The REMUS 600 vehicles will provide a detailed maritime survey and mine detection and classification capability in the 30m to 200m depth range, although the vehicle can operate down to 600m. It is fitted with a range of sensors and runs on re-chargeable batteries giving it an endurance of over 70 hours. The Remus 600 can be deployed from any vessel equipped with a one tonne crane or davit, and is intended to enter service in 2009. UK MoD release.
In response, one of the early-stage Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) approaches involves thinking entirely outside the sonar box. We talk about “submariner dolphins” – but maybe the creature they really need to emulate is the shark. Now a recent contract indicates that the US military is making real progress toward that goal…
Sweden’s Saab Underwater Systems makes UUVs like the Double Eagle, and has a special focus on littoral, shallow and difficult underwater environments due to Sweden’s underwater geography. Seaeye Marine, with approximately 50 employees and annual sales of approximately GBP 12 million (currently about $23.75 million), is located in Fareham, Hampshire on the south coast of England. The company develops and manufactures a range of electric powered remotely-operated underwater systems, and has become a leading supplier to the offshore oil and gas industry. The firm has expanded its vehicles’ capabilities of late to include the tasks like security, salvage and coastal observation.
The parties appear to think that the two are a good fit, as Saab just bought Seaeye Holdings Ltd. for GBP 13 million (currently about $25.7 million). Saab sees it as a way of strenthening their naval products portfolio with offerings that can serve both civilian and military markets. Seaeye CEO Chris Tarmey sees Saab as a way into maritime security and defense applications, and believes there may be technical synergies as well. Saab Release | Seaeye release.