Navy SEALs and other elite units are turning over some of the riskier parts of their jobs to a new underwater drone that is learning to "think and do" more on its own.
The REMUS 600 family of unmanned underwater vehicles, or UUVs, has been used by the Navy's special warfare units and Explosive Ordnance Disposal since the early 2000s, and cut its teeth on mine-clearing operations in the Persian Gulf leading up to the beginning of the Iraq War.
Now, experts believe these underwater drones will become a major player as the Pacific Ocean heats up in America's new rebalance there.
"The days in which a Navy ship could just be a warfighting platform...are long, long gone," says Christopher Harmer, a retired Navy officer and senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
The new U.S. presence in the Pacific is going to move an ever shrinking Navy from it's traditional "blue water" role in open ocean, he says, and into close-shore operations to address issues, like piracy and maritime crime. This requires each ship to have the technology to transmit information to the rest of the fleet, and to have the ability to protect itself.
Previously, the Navy had to fly teams of divers into any foreign port where a Navy ship would dock to clear it from a potential attack. This policy has become even more rigid following the 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole.
The REMUS is paving the way for Navy ships to take on more of this capability on its own, he says.
"What we want to do is get the 'manned' out of the minefield. We want to extend the reach," says Rob Simmons, an EOD expert for the Navy Surface Warfare Center. The REMUS Mark 18 UUVs are able to gather intelligence and detect mines, making it safer for the Navy to avoid and disarm them, he says.
REMUS can also be used to survey lakes, harbors or open ocean, or to search for specific items, he says. These devices helped locate pieces of the space shuttle Columbia when it exploded over the Toledo Bend Reservoir on the Texas-Lousiana border in 2003.
Requests for comment to Navy Special Warfare Command regarding these drones were not immediately returned, though Harmer says they likely use them in the same capacity as an EOD. Pilots know everything about the geographic and meteorologic dangers in an area of operations. A drone like the Mark 18 can help SEAL divers get the same kind of information shortly before swimming ashore.
The Office of Naval Research is continuing to develop software that allows these drones to adapt and work around a change in its environment or an obstacle. This autonomy allows it to "think and do more on its own," says Simmons.
New uses for the drones could include anti-submarine warfare, says Chris von Alt, CEO of Massachusetts-based Hydroid, which makes these drones.
"They're a disruptive technology," he says. "The Navy has begun to understand how capable they are and what they can do."
The Navy employs two versions. The Mod 1 is portable and weighs roughly 80 pounds. One person could deploy a unit from a helicopter or small boat and use a laptop to program it and process the resulting data. The Mod 2 is "the big guy," Simmons says, weighing 650 pounds and 12 feet in length. It is designed to change out the interior components for different sensors and generates significantly greater amounts of data, all of which requires more infrastructure based on a large ship or pier.
Unlike their aerial cousins regulated by the FAA, the REMUS UUVs are able to operate more freely due to the nature of waterborne vehicles.
"The world underwater is much less regulated than the world above water. That gives us an easier job," says Simmons, adding only 1 percent of the bottom of the sea has ever been seen. "It's more akin to the Mars Rover type of environment, than it is, as a direct comparison, to the drones in the air."
Most of the testing, training and operations occurs around the shores and harbors where the Navy operates, in keeping with National Environmental Protection Act policies, says Simmons, adding it's unlikely to see one of these on a trip to the beach.
"You're not interfacing with the public, not interfacing in areas used by commercial traffic, you deconflict with any sort of shipping traffic," he says. The intelligence gathering and surveying could also help homeland defense and border security. Von Alt gives the example of a bomb threat in New York Harbor, where finding an unusual object would be easier if an underwater drone had already surveilled and mapped out the harbor floor.
Unlike the aerial drones that frequently appear in international headlines, these underwater vehicles are largely not remotely controlled. Water blocks much more information bandwidth than air, says Simmons. Instead, the REMUS is programmed to take on a certain task, and only broadcasts information confirming it is still performing its job.
Simmons says these new drones are generating a great deal of excitement among students, though they don't necessarily produce the same headline-grabbing results.
"There's going to be increased interest as they become cheaper and more capable," he says. "It's unlike a remote-controlled boat or airplane, and having gone out on UUV test events, they're not that exciting after you launch it."
"The entertainment value is, 'Did it come back?' and "What did you get from the sensors?'" he says. Harmer says it's only a matter of time before pirates and criminal syndicates begin using underwater weapons similarly to insurgents' use of IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"When these organized Asian gangs get their hands on the maritime technology, they're going to start 'shaking down' the shipping lanes," he says. Underwater drones that could help combat this are "really starting to gain traction both in terms of technology and in terms of possible employment."
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Correction 7/09/2013: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Hydroid is based in Norway.