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BAE offers super-intelligent underwater robot

Claims revolutionary breakthrough, but then calms down

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BAE Systems this week unveiled its underwater mine-clearance robot, the "revolutionary" Talisman M.

In a Tuesday release, Andy Tonge, project manager for Talisman, is quoted as saying his baby can "can perform the type of dangerous roles currently performed by service men and women throughout the world - locate, identify and neutralise mines in one single mission without the need for human intervention".

This would certainly be revolutionary stuff, if true. Current naval minehunting techniques involve the use of sonar deployed in surface ships or lowered from helicopters to scan the sea bed. This typically produces a profusion of blips which could be mines; but normally many of them will be rocks, sunken debris, old fridges, oil drums, etc.

Each sonar contact must then be positively confirmed as mine or non-mine by human eyeball. Originally this would always be done by divers, but in recent decades the trend has been to send down a remotely-operated vehicle (ROV) with a video camera instead. If the camera picture shows a mine, the ROV can lay a destruction charge next to it before recovering to its mother ship. Then the charge can be detonated by acoustic signal, taking the mine with it.

Serious navies still employ mine-clearance divers, however, as there remain some situations in which they have advantages. Divers can operate from small boats or mini-subs, less conspicuous close inshore than a ship with ROVs, and divers can work in shallower waters than ROVs can. When clearing the way up to a beach for an amphibious assault, these things may be essential.

Even during normal ship-based operations, divers remain a useful option. If underwater visibility is poor, an ROV camera will be unable to distinguish mines from rocks. But a diver can do this by touch. Occasionally it may be necessary to do something with the mine other than immediately blow it up, such as moving it away from a pipeline or cable, or even recovering it intact for analysis. Finally, most present-day minewarfare captains occasionally find their diving team useful for recovering lost or broken ROVs.

The Talisman M, however, is meant to be a step forward. It can be launched from a ship safely over the horizon and navigate its way in to a target coastline underwater, avoiding notice from the shore. It can then sweep a designated area with its sonar and pick out mine-like contacts, still entirely without operator input.

At this point the contacts need checking out visually. The Talisman M carries four BAE Archerfish, small one-shot ROVs with cameras and destruction warheads. It can deploy these and control them via fibre-optic cable. The quote "identify and neutralise mines...without the need for human intervention", seems to imply that the Talisman can autonomously examine Archerfish video and decide for itself whether or not to blow up contacts, which would be a really amazing leap forward in artificial intelligence.

However, when contacted today, Tonge was quick to correct this. "The press release is wrong," he said, with refreshing candour. It seems that in fact the Talisman does need human input at this stage, and so it must communicate with its mother ship. BAE's description of the craft specifies that "communications to and from the vehicle are via WiFi or Iridium SatCom whilst surfaced, or acoustic communications when submerged".

When asked how on Earth an Archerfish video picture could be carried by acoustic communications from the submerged Talisman to the human operator, Tonge freely admitted that it can't. The Talisman needs to surface before it can deploy Archerfish. Those familiar with Iridium satcomms won't be hugely surprised to hear that "line-of-sight UHF" is currently required back to the human operator according to Tonge, suggesting that the mother ship may not quite be hidden over the horizon after all. The shipborne operator handles the Archerfish in relatively conventional fashion.

Tonge points out, however, that the surfaced Talisman has a low freeboard and is hard to spot compared to a conventional minehunting ship.

So the Talisman M isn't quite as revolutionary as BAE is making out. It's more of a convergence device, bringing together several existing technologies.

A human brain is still necessary to positively identify sea mines. Given the severe limitations of underwater communications, if you want to work secretly without anything showing on the surface it will be necessary to place a human brain underwater in the minefield as of old. Thus, the only totally secret way to tackle an inshore minefield is to send in divers mounted on suitably-equipped underwater vehicles (swimming in from over the horizon wouldn't be very practical). The frogmen could then place charges on all the mines, which could then be detonated by acoustic signals just before the amphibious assault arrived.

But it's fair to say that you don't really need that level of secrecy most times. The first wave of an amphibious assault generally goes in by helicopter, as last seen on the Al Faw peninsula in 2003, so observers on shore aren't always a show-stopper.

Furthermore, the Talisman M really can do the first part of the task – the sonar sweep – completely covertly and autonomously, according to Tonge. You might buy it for that purpose alone. And its secondary ability to operate as a surface Archerfish platform certainly reduces the level of risk for its operators, and lowers the profile of the operation somewhat.

Talisman M won't be cheap, of course, but neither is running dedicated minehunting ships: and Talisman can apparently be based aboard a wide range of vessels, possibly making minehunters unnecessary. Even once you look at what it can really do rather than the inflated hype in the release, Talisman M could be worthwhile. The Special Boat Service (the maritime counterpart of the SAS) is said to be operating a different version already, optimised for covert beach-recce missions.

BAE has got overly carried away on the publicity here. Even so, if Tonge's amended description is correct, the company may have produced a potentially worthwhile piece of kit. Given its involvement in other projects such as Nimrod, Eurofighter, the Tornado F3 et inglorious cetera, that would be worth noting. ®

Lewis Page is a former Royal Navy minewarfare officer with extensive experience of both diving and ROV clearance operations. He spent seven years in minehunters. His book Lions, Donkeys and Dinosaurs: Waste and Blundering in the Military is out next month in paperback, with a new afterword. You should definitely buy that rather than a second-hand copy of the original edition.

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