Technological advances make life better, more interesting, more sustainable, more defensible, and what have you. Advances, from my perspective, come from building on established ideas and filling a need (new or re-invented), or mimicking observable phenomenon. In today’s post, I aim to discuss a few of these types of innovation, examples in technology, and a few notes on why this matters from a Navy and global community perspective.
Sound like a lot to cover? Yeah, to me too, so let us get started.
One of the biggest idea generators is the world around us and our desire to explore it. The desire to fly as birds do led to manned flight. Sure, the first flight lasted less than a minute, could only hold one person (a bicycle mechanic), and was powered by a buggy motor; but thousands of years of desire and failure were quenched by a few equations, an internal combustion engine and a few very big dreams. Want to see what’s going on underwater? Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. Want to see what’s on the sea floor? Submarines and unmanned underwater vehicles. Investigate things that are too dangerous for people? Robots.
While people are able to duplicate useful systems like sonar for echo location, the ability to send and receive multiple tonals with the same device and analyze the data in seconds becomes a complicated problem. Add in the small size and agility of a dolphin or a porpoise, and the level of sophistication required is daunting.
Why not just train a dolphin to do it? Good question. Fact is the U.S. Navy does train marine mammals to perform tasks that would take a team of well-trained people to do, and possibly several days to do it. Dolphins are very intelligent animals and are capable of quickly identifying underwater objects and people, deftly maneuvering in tight spaces to reach them, and can repeatedly dive deeply without the dangers of decompression sickness.
Robert Simmons, Navy Underwater EOD Assistant Program Manager, said during IMCMEX 13 MIP Symposium, “Mammals are particularly well suited for precision location in a cluttered acoustic environment.” He went on to say that mammals are also the “only asset capable of detecting, marking and neutralizing partially buried or buried mines.”
The use of mammals is not new, but with mine countermeasures re-emerging as a global focus, these agile, capable animals may again become a staple of our identifying and marking potential subsurface hazards. Additional information on the mammals used and the mandates that govern their treatment can be found on NNMP’s data-rich website.
Filling a Need and Re-purposing
Items like remote controls and toasters are good examples of things made convenient by decreasing the effort of achieving a result. While toasting bread over a fire or on a pan achieves the same result as resistance heated coils in close proximity to bread that is time limited by a heat sensitive thermocouple. The difference lies in the rheostat that adjusts the heat/time limit based on the signal sent by the thermocouple, allowing people to “set and forget” while still getting made-to-order toast.
UUVs in relation to mine hunting serve a similar role: increasing convenience and safety while decreasing effort. The REMUS UUV was developed in the late 1990s by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. The U.S. Navy calls REMUS the MK 18 UUV, an underwater autonomous surveillance and reconnaissance vehicle that operates on a pre-programmed path for hours and surfaces at a set time at a set location with an enormous data packet on the acoustic survey of a harbor or waterway. This allows a small boat with 2 or 3 crew members to do in a day what it would take a team or two of divers a month to do. Sure, divers (or specialized submersibles) are still needed to identify suspicious targets and neutralize threats, but the amount of man hours needed to search an area is drastically reduced.
Additionally, the Navy is developing Knifefish, a heavyweight Surface Mine Countermeasure (SMCM) UUV that is designed to hunt for buried mines and mines in high clutter environments with high confidence and low false alarm rates. Knifefish Flight 1 is equipped with low frequency broadband side scan sonar and operates in the littoral regions as part of the Littoral Combat Ship MCM Mission Package.
Want a robot to visually identify and make a threat go boom? We’ve got those too (and so do other nations). SeaFox is a mine neutralization submersible that has been adopted by the U.S. Navy and is being tested to replace/augment the older mine neutralization vehicles that are much larger and less sophisticated. The SeaFox system can be used to visibly identify and neutralize objects of interest, previously located by sonar from ships or other UUV systems.
Sailors are still a part of this equation, whether piloting the Sea Fox with more fidelity or analyzing the data transmitted, but this remote system provides an enhanced level of convenience and safety during mine hunting operations that have become integral to the way the mine countermeasure mission is accomplished.
Innovation has been described many different ways by people far more educated than I am. That being said, I am going to talk about a common concept and attack it from a different direction. Take the 90’s and 2000’s wave of making cell phones smaller, easier to text, etc. The team at Apple, made phones bigger and turned them into interactive personal computing devices that happen to make phone calls.
How’s that for left field? The story’s been told enough times that it’s commonplace, but the innovation of that team is undeniable.
As for mines, and mine neutralization, we focus on approaching the problem mainly with surface and subsurface assets and technology (some mentioned above). Aside from the sweeping and hunting gear that an MH-53 helicopter drags through the water, there isn’t much of an air-based MCM capability. Until now.
Researchers are developing air-dropped munitions that can neutralize mines in the surf zone, and even inland. The aerial Assault Breaching System (ABS) Countermine System (CMS) deploys dart-like projectiles that can render mines ineffective while naval forces and shipping vessels wait a safe distance away. This system also has the potential to neutralize other targets.
Cool things are in the works all the time. Rail guns and Lasers at sea have gotten some attention lately, but for MCM and MIP, unmanned vehicles and airborne response options are where it’s at. 41 countries from all over the world gathered for the sixth Maritime Infrastructure Protection Symposium this year, and got to talk with technology representatives about new systems and new developments with old systems like the ones mentioned above. This conference is held every 18 months and is a critical forum to exchange ideas so that infrastructure protection and mine countermeasures can outpace the capabilities of hostile actors.
Hope you enjoyed the not-so-terse tour of tech.