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New Depths On The High Seas
HOMELAND SECURITY TODAY, 1 Feb. 06, by Lakshmi Sandhana
(Copyrighted HSToday, excerpt provided to Joe Buff by L. Sandhana)

Underwater robots could soon revolutionize coastal surveillance.

At Rensselaer's Darrin Fresh Water Institute (DFWI) on Lake George, NY, a group of researchers are working on developing a network of solar-powered autonomous underwater vehicles (SAUVs) that will communicate with each other to detect threats and hazardous substances in coastal and harbor waters.

While small, truly autonomous submersible robotic vehicles called “ocean rovers” exist in the hundreds around the world right now, these primarily remain oceanographic data-gathering platforms, used for scientific and economic research. In contrast, the SAUVs are being designed for use as platforms for mobile long-term deployment of sensor systems for both national security and defense.

"The SAUVs could be used to detect potential threats by detecting and tracking objects or vehicles in coastal waters," Arthur Sanderson, professor of electrical, computer, and systems engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, told HSToday. "The chemical sensors could be used to detect toxic substances or explosive materials. A scenario might utilize a line or grid of vehicles with each traversing 10 to 20 kilometers per day in a systematic pattern. Another specific application maybe in harbor surveillance through scanning of ships and hulls using underwater sensing methods."

Mission profile

A typical SAUV mission could begin with the robots being launched from a trailer or a seagoing vessel. While each robot has an initial plan or certain “way points” to visit specified by an on-board computing system, its route can be modified in response to real time sensory data from the environment or messages transmitted from other vehicles.

Cruising underwater at a speed of 2 knots, the robots can stay submerged for up to12 hours and dive up to 500 meters. Once submerged they will be able to communicate with each other using sonar signals while surface communication will be achieved with wireless networks and satellite systems. The solar panel onboard allows the robot to recharge its own batteries in less than eight hours once it surfaces, potentially allowing it to be deployed for weeks or months. Current experiments have run up to 10 days.

In June, 2005, three SAUV-II vehicles were demonstrated to the Office of Naval Research in Keyport, Wash. A SAUV-II worked in coordination with technology developed by the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. During this demonstration, sensory information from a SAUV was linked simultaneously to Hawaii, Newport, and Europe. The vehicles were developed in collaboration with D. Richard Blidberg of the Autonomous Undersea Systems Institute in Lee, NH, along with Technology Systems Inc., Falmouth Scientific Inc., and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center.

The need for an underwater surveillance system is acute. Joe Buff, an undersea naval expert and the author of several books on submarines, said that there are gaps in coastline security that an aggressor could eventually penetrate, if he were willing to expend enough time, money, and manpower in his efforts.

"There are three equally urgent needs that undersea-based security systems need to address right now," Buff said. "We need an early warning system in place to detect quiet enemy submarines. Secondly surface ships that are under the control of terrorists or drug dealers (and these two groups of bad guys overlap) need to be tracked covertly. For instance, it's known that Al Qaeda controls one or two dozen merchant ships worldwide, and the US Navy works hard to find and interdict them. Finally, we need to protect against terrorist and saboteur combat swimmers who infiltrate harbors, bases, or anywhere else on the coastline via scuba and/or mini-subs."

In an attempt to address these threats, the US Navy handed Pennsylvania State University researchers a $27.7 million contract to develop a Persistent Littoral Undersea Surveillance Network (PLUSNET) in May 2005. The network will consist of a semi-autonomous controlled system of fixed bottom and mobile sensors that can communicate with each other and independently make basic decisions to track ships and silent submarines operating in shallow water environments. The first demonstration of the network is scheduled to take place in 2008 but the Navy doesn’t expect to have it operational until 2015.

Swarming SAUVs

Scientists at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are also working on an undersea surveillance system envisioned as "a floating field of smart, long-term, station-keeping sensors capable of observing the ocean environment at a known location over an extended period of time," according to a statement issued by DARPA.

But can swarms of undersea robots really prove to be effective?

"Probably in limited contexts within confined waters—say choke points or coastal littoral areas," said Buff. "But I think that in 10 or 20 years mini-probes will begin to be effective tripwires against hostile intrusions, not just by enemy combatants and terrorists but also by foreign fishing boats violating exclusive economic zones."

Buff stressed, though, that the US Navy needs to focus more on "preemptive surveillance" which would give an earlier warning, potentially saving more time, lives, and money.

"It's far better to have underwater sensors planted and monitored outside a hostile base to detect sorties of their submarines, than it is to have sensors only outside your own bases to detect those subs trying to infiltrate at the last minute -- when it may be too late to stop their torpedoes, mines, and combat swimmers,” he argued.

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