All posts by NavalDrones

Can Small AUVs Work at Sea?

This post published on NavalDrones.com and was republished with permission. It may read in its original form here.

The researchers at CoCoRo continue to push the limits of autonomy and swarming behavior with autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). Recently, they’ve taken their AUVs out of the controlled laboratory tanks and into the wild, with small scale tests in ponds, lakes, and protected ocean harbors. These robots are prototypes designed to explore small scale autonomous group behavior. But the ocean tests hint at possibilities of using smaller marine robots to perform useful functions.

Unmanned Underwater Vehicles employed in military and research operations range in size from man portable, weighing less than 100 pounds, to monsters such as Boeing’s Echo Ranger, which weighs more than 5,000 kilograms. Small scale AUVs weighing less than a few kilograms or so are limited in endurance primarily due to battery size. More importantly, the ocean environment presents a number of challenges for tinier AUVs including surf and currents, poor visibility, and even hungry marine predators. But CoCoRo’s tests of their “Lily” and “Jeff” robots are early indications that these types of AUVs can operate on a limited scale in ocean conditions. What say you, readers? Can small AUV’s do real work in a maritime environment? If so, what are some potential applications for mini-AUVs? Can the obstacles the ocean presents to AUVs be overcome with larger numbers of vehicles or swarming behavior? 

Private Security Drones for Counter-Piracy Ops

Depiction of ATAC Anti-piracy UAV.
Depiction of ATAC Anti-piracy UAV.

We’ve talked about privately-funded drones for maritime eco-activism and humanitarian operations, so it’s not surprising to see another naval mission where unmanned air vehicles have bled into the private sector. Now, at least one private security company has offered UAV services as an anti-piracy solution.

Commercial shipping companies embraced private security as a means for protecting their ships after piracy in the Indian Ocean expanded significantly in the late 2000’s, putting crews at risk and costing shippers billions in dollars in increased insurance premiums.

Skeldar UAV integration team is board Spanish Navy Offshore Patrol Vessel BAM Relámpago for anti-piracy operations in September 2013. (Photo: Armada Española)
Skeldar UAV integration team is board Spanish Navy Offshore Patrol Vessel BAM Relámpago for anti-piracy operations in September 2013. (Photo: Armada Española)

Incidents of Somali piracy have been virtually non-existent since 2012, primarily due to the hardening of commercial shipping targets by embarked security teams. Other counter-measures, such as fire hoses, razor wire, and hardened crew citadels were too easily defeated by pirates, but to date, no ship with an armed security team has been successfully hijacked. UAVs make a lot of sense to enhance the effectiveness of these teams. According to Advanced Tactics and Countermeasures Global, “acting as a forward scout and transmitting a live video feed of possible threats, the ATAC UAV simultaneously video documents each step from the identification to even the escalation of force, if necessary.” ATAC’s video depicts a quadcopter launching from a container ship, which would work in conjunction with their designated marksmen onboard the ships to deter and neutralize a pirate attack. The ability of the UAV to get much closer to suspicious skiffs will also help security teams to reduce liability and mistaken identification of fishermen as pirates.

If deployed, these private sector UAVs will join the ranks of the increasing number of naval drones flying anti-piracy patrols in the Indian ocean. The Italian Air Force’s 32nd Wing flies the MQ-1 Predator out of Djibouti for EUNavFor. Among other navies operating ship-board UAVs against Somali piracy, Dutch and American ships have flown ScanEagle and the Spaniards the Skeldar. U.S. ships have also deployed the Fire Scout against pirates.

This post appeared in its original form at NavalDrones.com and was republished by permission.

Swarming Underwater Vehicles: An Update

Bio-inspired robotics research continues to pave the way for future military applications. In 2012, researchers proved that Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs), could perform simple swarming functions.

We’ve discussed that technology and its implications for naval use in a post here. CoCoRo (Collective Cognitive Robots) is a consortium of European universities led by the Artificial Life AL in the Department of Zoology at the Karl-Franzens-University Graz engaged in developing autonomous swarms of underwater vehicles to monitor, search, and explore the underwater realm.

As seen in the above video, their AUVs demonstrate novel underwater communications methods and simple swarming behavior. CoCoRo is building 20 copies of its newer AUV, “Jeff,” which can maneuver rapidly underwater and dock to a floating surface station for battery recharging and data transfer. Jeff is equipped with multiple communication tools including flashing blue LEDs, pressure wave, and sensors for potential field, obstacle avoidance, and shoaling.

Although small in scale, these experiments might prove useful to the development of a future generation of collaborative UUVs performing a variety of naval missions. Autonomous vehicles cooperating across various ocean depths will be useful for real time hydrography and to characterize acoustic propagation – a critical factor in antisubmarine warfare. Mine countermeasures is another obvious mission, along with autonomous swarmed attack against surface or sub-surface platforms.

This article was re-posted by permission from, and appeared in its original form at NavalDrones.com.

Non-Traditional Drone Motherships

Kingfishing off the Coastal Command Boat
               Kingfishing off the Coastal Command Boat

Earlier this week, guest blogger Mark Tempest posted some interesting ideas on low cost alternatives to traditional combatants that could be configured to carry unmanned surface vehicles, playing on the idea that payload truly is more important than platform. These concepts are unorthodox, though as Mark points out, not unprecedented. In a time of shrinking budgets and smaller fleets, the navy should explore how to optimize various combinations of ships and the unmanned vehicles they will carry, with an eye towards both effectiveness and efficiency. Mine counter-measures is an important, though often short-changed mission, with various trade-offs between payload and platform.

Between the Littoral Combat Ship “seaframe” and mission modules, the U.S. Navy has invested billions of dollars in R&D and acquisition money to develop (though still not fully) the capability to conduct off-board, unmanned mine counter-measures. LCS will carry the Remote Minehunting System, a rather large, complex, diesel-powered snorkeling vehicle which has been under development for about two decades. RMS is designed to tow a side scan sonar in order to detect mines. Contrast that arrangement with the Coastal Command Boat, pictured here with an embarked Kingfish, an unmanned underwater vehicle which essentially performs the same job as the RMS with its synthetic aperture sonar. The CCB, or the follow-on MK VI patrol boat can carry two of these UUVs. A well deck equipped amphibious ship (LPD, LSD, LHD) could be configured to carry multiple MK VIs, resulting in the ability to rapidly deploy several UUVs over a wide area at any given time. Additionally these patrol boats, or as Mark suggests, another Craft of Opportunity, could be forward deployed or prepositioned in various overseas ports, including ones too small or too politically sensitive to station a larger combatant. An LCS can bring an MCM capability to a mine field at 40 knots, much more rapidly than dedicated MCM ship. A C-17 with patrol boats and a UUV Det can transport MCM package at 10 times that fast. Certainly there are other trade-offs in capability, cost, and versatility in all these options.

Given these emerging MCM alternatives, future fleet experimentation to identify other payload/platform configurations that can achieve the same operational results as the LCS/RMS package in a more affordable manner is certainly warranted. Because of the relatively low cost involved in these platforms and UUVs, the answer doesn’t have to be all or none and more than one alternative can be pursued without breaking the bank.

This article was re-posted by permission from, and appeared in its original form at NavalDrones.com.