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The US Navy Is About to Build New Robot Submarines

The Navy's new long-duration robot submarine, whose production will start later this year, is both literally and figuratively greater than the sum of its parts.
Photo by Ryan Faith/VICE News

The Office of Naval Research is currently hard at work developing the next generation of autonomous robotic submarines, and the fruit of their efforts is the Large Displacement Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (LDUUV). It's notable for several reasons, including the fact that its full name may be less of a mouthful than its acronym.

LDUUV is, essentially, a customizable underwater robot system. Underwater robots are nothing new for the US Navy, but the concept of a customizable system — a system in this case is simply a collection of component parts that function together as a whole — has the potential to change how new systems are acquired in the US Department of Defense.

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The robot subs will be able to stay underwater for at least 70 days at a time, and will be launched from a surface ship or directly from a pier. They're getting fitted to carry out a variety of tasks, including so-called ISR — intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.

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As of this summer, the US will have 54 attack submarines deployed — 27 subs in the Atlantic and 27 in the Pacific. Of those two groups of 27, one-third are out at sea at any time; the remainder are in the shop for maintenance or are getting ready for their next patrol. That means that there is an average of nine US subs prowling the entire Atlantic Ocean, and nine US subs prowling the Pacific. If the subs were spread out evenly (they're not), the Atlantic subs would each be responsible for an area the size of the United States, while the Pacific subs would each cover an area the size of Russia.

So the US Navy's submarine fleet can get spread pretty thin.

That's why there's an interest in boosting coverage by adding robot submarines that can work for months at a time. Today, smaller battery-powered unmanned mini-subs can only stay out at sea for a few hours or days, and are incapable of executing multi-month missions independently. The limiting factor for submarine long-duration missions is battery life, so if the Navy can figure out how to better power these autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), it opens up many opportunities for new missions.

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The LDUUV is still a work in progress and won't be operational until at least 2020. Production of the vehicle should start this year, and testing could start as soon as 2018. As the project has reached development milestones and advanced, updates on the LDUUV and its progress have become more sporadic, but we do know the Navy hosted an industry day for companies developing anti-submarine warfare components for the system last November.

Modular design is not something the DoD does very well. Typically DoD creates new systems that aren't modular, and tries to make them solve every problem developers can possibly think of. This often results in a system that doesn't solve any one specific problem very well. A modular system, however, should be flexible enough to have components that can be traded in and out depending on the problems that need solving. In addition, it will likely save money over time as it allows for more customization and easier upgrades.

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The idea for the LDUUV system is that future engineers will be able to plug in new sensors, batteries, processors, or even torpedoes. To make this happen, design standards have to be established to let all of the different pieces talk to each other no matter what the pieces are. On the hardware side, developers are doing stuff like making sure everything is using the same types of wires and connectors so that sailors don't ever need to fit a square micro-USB cable into a round 8-pin port. As for software, after the standard fights over operating systems and programming languages, developers have to standardize the way they collect and pass data back and forth across networks.

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Captain Robert Boyer, director of the Battlespace Awareness Division in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, told VICE News that the Navy is working on establishing common data standards that are "what is being designed into the LDUUV."

Developing standards doesn't make headlines like unveiling a sexy new weapon, but it is the foundational element that makes modular systems possible. If the DoD and defense industry can come together and all speak the same engineering language, it will also pave the way for competition from smaller innovative organizations to develop components for new systems. In addition, underwater environmental information collected from the LDUUV could more easily be pushed out to different military analysis centers, civilian agencies, and foreign partners.

Boyer spoke about modularity and standards at the recent 14th Annual C4ISR & Networks Conference. (C4ISR is an acronym for the laundry list of stuff that commanders in the field need to be plugged in to: Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance.) He described modular design as being akin to putting Legos together. As long as all of the basic connectors are the same — the little nubs on the pieces — each vehicle is able to be customized to whatever the owner needs at the time. The submarine components will not be Lego-levels of customizable in that they can also be used to create dinosaurs and spaceships, but it will still be a big step forward for AUVs.

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For instance, the Navy will be able to swap out elements of the subs on the fly, even when the system is deployed at sea. A sub could start by conducting an anti-submarine warfare mission in a combat zone, be brought back to a frigate and re-fitted with torpedoes, and then be redeployed to take out an enemy sub.

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Yet another reconfigure could give the LDUUV the ability to find the wreckage of the sub it killed on the bottom of the ocean floor with sonar sensors. And while doing all of these things, the autonomous nature of the submarine will require minimal human interaction, which will free up crews above the water. A simple "go over there and look for submarines" command could replace countless lines of code.

Acquiring modular systems prepares fighting forces for future changes in military technology that it cannot predict. So if in 20 years the Navy wants to mount submarines with all-new railguns, all they'll have to do in theory is install the gun in a standard-sized area in the LDUUV — and away it goes.

Follow Steven Tomaszewski on Twitter: @stevetomski