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November 2011 Issue

With Unmanned Maritime Vehicles, Expect Big Changes in Defense, Security
By Antoine Martin
Times are changing, and with that change comes a number of opportunities that will arise with unmanned maritime vehicles (UMVs) for the defense and security markets. This is the conclusion I've reached after completing in September a survey of the UMV field, which includes a large number of interviews, reviews of policy and scientific documents, budgets and contracts, and analyses of public and private information.

Until now, UUVs have mostly been used for mine countermeasures, the oil and gas industry, and oceanographic research. Beyond a few niche markets, USVs have not found widespread use. So what has changed in the last few years, and what will be the impact on UMVs? The first area of change is technology. Large defense contractors that used to dominate the underwater defense market in the '90s have been displaced by newcomers, often using university-developed technology. With very capable vehicles, these newcomers have quickly gained acceptance, and innovation is constant.

UUV gliders can now monitor the seas on an almost-persistent basis, which the government and oil and gas industry took note of during the BP oil spill. Liquid Robotics (Sunnyvale, Cal?ifornia) offers a USV that is propelled from wave energy, answering to the challenge of endurance operations at sea. Marine Advanced Re?search (El Cerrito, California) offers a USV capable of covering enormous distances using two flexible hulls and rudderless navigation. ACSA's (Meyreuil, France) electric BASIL USV has been shipped in suitcases on commercial airplanes. Small, low-cost designs such as these are paving the way to open UMVs to many new users and markets. Mean?while, small and hand-launch?ed UUVs are increasingly being used in shallow waters for harbor survey, such as in the port of Sydney, Australia, as part of homeland security initiatives.

Another area of change is in maritime threats. Mines still pose a formidable threat, and they are also becoming smarter, attempting to fool the countermeasures of yesterday. Con?flicts are increasingly becoming asymmetric, meaning large warships and blue-water equipment are becoming less suited to respond to threats. Underwater improvised explosive devices stuck on cargo ships as they enter harbors or hidden inside oil tanks would mostly go undetected. Exclusive economic zones in Southeast Asia are heavily disputed, with conflicts over territorial protection, mineral rights and fisheries management, resulting in an increased need to monitor and enforce maritime territories. Finally, piracy is on the rise. The changing nature of maritime threats is making traditional equipment obsolete.

The final change is budgets of developed countries. Nuclear submarines take a long time to build and are outrageously expensive. The cost of a soldier engaged in war—$500,000 per soldier in Afghanistan per year—is becoming so prohibitive that all branches of the U.S. military have agreed manpower is the single highest expense.

Better and cheaper technology, increasing maritime threats and meager budgets result in one conclusion: More machines will be used to do the job. Mine search rates will increase by employing multiple UUVs working collaboratively. USVs will soon deploy UUVs and mine disposal vehicles, keeping manned ships at a safe distance. UMVs are now being developed to lay mines while UUVs are being designed to be the ultimate "smart" torpedoes.

Let's look at a few more specific impacts. Homeland security, port authorities and municipalities will increasingly employ small and low-cost UMVs to monitor threats and quickly respond to them. Today, a host of sensors and capabilities are being tested on USVs, from chemical sensors to facial recognition. UUVs are scanning ships' hulls to ensure no bombs are attached, and fish-inspired designs, such as the Ghost Swimmer from Boston Engineering Corp. (Waltham, Massachusetts), will swim through crude oil to ensure no explosives are hidden within oil tankers.

It is expected that by 2020, USVs will be able to fill in the gaps for various sea safety and enforcement measures, including coverage supplementation for automatic identification systems. UUVs will help quickly notify authorities of oil spills in protected areas. USVs will escort ships through dangerous zones, and even apprehend boats carrying illicit cargo such as weapons, drugs and humans. Environmental regulations to prevent water contamination, illegal fishing and environmental damage from offshore drilling and mining will all lead to increased opportunities for UUVs.

With the shortage of submarines in developed countries, it will be inefficient to use submarines for continued surveillance of specific areas. UMVs will provide additional "ears" for the remaining submarines. The U.S. Navy's large-displacement UUV program offers weapon capabilities and can operate in shallow areas usually off-limits to larger submarines. UMVs can also network data to and from larger submarines, improving covertness. Concept projects such as the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Un?manned Vessel, sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, will detect and follow enemy submarines globally, providing their location from the time they are detected. UMVs will also execute anti-submarine warfare missions when hosted by multimission frigates such as littoral combat ships. In the long term, UMVs will complement submarines' abilities and contribute to undersea warfare dominance.

Just as unmanned ground and aerial vehicles have changed the face of urban warfare, it is only a matter of time before UMVs do the same for naval defense and maritime security.
Antoine Martin, a business consultant and principal of Unmanned Vehicles Systems Consulting LLC, previously worked as an ocean engineer developing UUV payloads. He recently completed a study, published by Market Intel Group, of USV and UUV technologies for the defense and security markets, with a forecast period from 2012 to 2020.


2012:  JAN | FEB | MARCH | APRIL | MAY | JUNE | JULY | AUG | SEPT | OCT | NOV | DEC
2011:  JAN | FEB | MARCH | APRIL | MAY | JUNE | JULY | AUG | SEPT | OCT | NOV | DEC

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Sea Technology is read worldwide in more than 110 countries by management, engineers, scientists and technical personnel working in industry, government and educational research institutions. Readers are involved with oceanographic research, fisheries management, offshore oil and gas exploration and production, undersea defense including antisubmarine warfare, ocean mining and commercial diving.