Rise of the swimming machines: US sub launches and recovers a drone

Re-usable spypedo sent out from special forces mini-dock

Engineer aboard Das Boot U-96 responds to telegraphs
Still from Das Boot, Columbia Pictures

The US Navy has successfully launched and returned an underwater drone during an undersea mission in the Mediterranean.

Virginia-class attack submarine the USS North Dakota (SSN-784), was deployed to the Mediterranean for two months. She returned to base on Monday after a successful test of her drone-launching capability, according to the Associated Press.

Captain Douglas Gordon, the boat's commanding officer, was interviewed at its homeport of Groton, Connecticut, following its return on 20 July. He said: "This was something they thought we could go do ... we went out, and we proved that."

The Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) used was the Remus 600, an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) (PDF) developed by Hydroid with funding from the US Office of Naval Research.

The Remus 600 is advertised as fully modular, allowing different payloads, and runs on a 5.2 kWh lithium ion battery which is expected to last for as long as 70 hours, subject to speed and sensor configurations. It has a maximum operating depth of 600 metres, although Hydroid claims configurations up to 3,000 metres are available.

Details of the mission were not provided, but Gordon explained that the drone was launched from a dry deck shelter, designed to launch divers and mini-subs when submerged.

Military.com spoke to Rear Admiral Joseph Tofalo, who explained the Navy's interest in UUVs back in April.

"Now you are talking about a submarine CO who can essentially be in two places at the same time – with a UUV out deployed which can do dull, dirty and dangerous type missions. This allows the submarine to be doing something else at the same time," Tofalo told the site.

UUVs can help us better meet our combatant command demand signal. Right now, we only meet about two-thirds of our combatant commanders demand signals, and having unmanned systems is a huge force multiplier.

AP reports that unmanned vehicles have been used to simulate enemy submarines for training purposes since the 1970s, as well as for mine detection and ocean floor mapping. Other possible uses include intelligence and combat applications.

A report (PDF) by the Counterintelligence Directorate of the Pentagon's Defense Security Service in 2011 declared that AUVs were a special focus area for foreign entities, who "actively targeted cleared contractors working on AUV issues" showing "a particularly strong interest in transforming and upgrading their naval forces."

Admiral Tofalo explained to Military.com that the Navy is "using commercial off-the-shelf technologies to do real world missions for the combatant commander. The oil and gas industry uses these things for all kinds of functions."

"The submarine force will be adapting this. The sensors are similar to the sensors that the oil and gas industry might use. They might be surveying where their oil pipes are, whereas we might want to be looking for a mine field," added Tofalo.

With the dry deck launching capabilities successfully proven, the USN is likely to move on to tests of torpedo-tube launches. In 2013, the USS Providence managed to launch an unmanned aerial vehicle from a submerged boat. ®

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