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DARPA wants sleeper drones at the bottom of the sea

Defense department researchers are looking for ways to store, then deploy, unmanned, unarmed drones from the ocean floor when situations dictate.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) said on Jan. 11 that it is looking to develop distributed systems that hibernate in deep-sea capsules for years, wake up when commanded, and deploy to surface providing operational support and situational awareness. It stressed that the drones wouldn’t carry weapons and would be used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in contested areas.

It’s hoping to tap into the deep-ocean engineering experience that the telecommunications and oil-exploration industry have with signal propagation in the water and on the seafloor.

It said the project would help the Navy cope with mounting costs and complexities that could inhibit operations over vast maritime areas. “Unmanned systems and sensors are commonly envisioned to fill coverage gaps and deliver action at a distance,” said DARPA. It added, however, that for all of the advances in sensing, autonomy, and unmanned platforms in recent years, the technologies’ usefulness becomes academic when faced with deployment issues.

DARPA’s said its “Upward Falling Payloads” (UFP) program seeks to address that challenge.

The UFP concept would see development of deployable, unmanned, distributed systems that sleep on the deep-ocean floor in special containers for years at a time. Those deep-sea nodes, said DARPA, would then be woken up remotely when needed and recalled to the surface. In other words, they “fall upward,” it said.

 “The goal is to support the Navy with distributed technologies anywhere, anytime over large maritime areas. If we can do this rapidly, we can get close to the areas we need to affect, or become widely distributed without delay,” said Andy Coon, DARPA program manager. “To make this work, we need to address technical challenges like extended survival of nodes under extreme ocean pressure, communications to wake-up the nodes after years of sleep, and efficient launch of payloads to the surface.”

A proposer’s day is scheduled for Jan. 25, 2013, in the DARPA Conference Center. DARPA is looking for proposals in three key areas for developing the program: communications; deep ocean ‘risers’ to contain the payloads; and the actual payloads. Since the program will emphasize the use of ambient pressure containment with its risers, there is no need for specialization of payloads to accommodate the extreme pressures of the deep sea, it said.

It added that communities with technical background in unmanned platforms; distributed sensors; networking; sensor packaging; information operations; electronic warfare; anti-submarine warfare, etc. may all be able to play a role.

Almost half of the world’s oceans are more than four kilometers deep. This provides considerable opportunity for cheap stealth, it said, but the vastness and depth make retrieval costs prohibitive.  Despite this, the UFP program is specifically not a weapons program, and the risks to losing any single node will be minimal. 

According to DARPA, depending on the specific payload, the systems would provide a range of non-lethal, but useful, capabilities like situational awareness, disruption, deception, networking, rescue, or any other mission that benefits from being pre-distributed and hidden. An example class of systems might be small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that launch to the surface in capsules, take off and provide aerial situational awareness, networking or decoy functions, it said, adding that waterborne applications are sought as well. 

“We are simply offering an alternative path to realize these missions without requiring legacy ships and aircraft to launch the technology, and without growing the reach and complexity of unmanned platforms,” said Coon.


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