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The US Navy May Battle Deadly Naval Mines With Quadcopter Drones

Once laid, naval mines are extremely difficult to find and neutralize. But the US Navy may be developing drone technology that could change that.

by Ryan Faith
Sep 26 2014, 8:10pm

Photo by Joshua Kelsey/US Navy

Naval mines are the proverbial red-headed stepchild of the naval warfare community. Generally neglected, sometimes abused, and seldom given any attention, they're a problem nobody wants to talk about. But they're also a problem that won't go away.

Generally speaking, naval mines function like their landlubber cousins. Except instead of being smallish things buried under some dirt that can kill or maim unwary soldiers and innocent civilians, or wreck a passing tank, naval mines can have warheads weighing more than 1,000 lbs., hide under hundreds of feet of water, and kill ships full of people. Even more frightening, some kinds of naval mines are essentially robot ambush torpedoes that lie in wait until they're activated by commotion from a passing vessel, at which point the mines launch themselves at high speeds toward the target and kill it.

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Those are the Cadillacs of naval mines. The cheapest naval mines — the ones you tend to see bobbing in the ocean in movies, video games, and cartoons — are practically the IEDs of the sea, dirt-cheap and deadly. Those may cost only a few thousand dollars, while the Cadillacs cost a few million. Which is still way, way, way less than the cost of the ships upon which they prey; the US Navy's newest carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, cost nearly $13 billion dollars. (One mine wouldn't sink it, but it would quite plausibly disable and mangle the ship.)

Naval mines are extremely hard to neutralize once they've been laid. The costs of removing one can be anywhere from 10 to 200 times more than the cost of manufacturing and deploying it. Similarly, it can take 200 times as long to clear a naval minefield as it does to lay it.

'We have lost control of the seas to a nation without a navy, using pre-World War I weapons, laid by vessels that were utilized at the time of the birth of Christ.'

During the Korean War, the North Koreans snuck out and laid a naval minefield that forestalled an amphibious invasion on Korea's eastern shore. It prompted Rear Admiral Allan Smith, who was in charge of that advance force, to lament, "We have lost control of the seas to a nation without a navy, using pre-World War I weapons, laid by vessels that were utilized at the time of the birth of Christ."

After World War II, efforts to clear remaining naval minefields resulted in the damage or loss of more than 500 ships. To this day, some of those Second World War-era minefields — they contained thousands of mines — are still in place because it's too difficult or costly to clear them.

The most modern, high-tech, fancy US mine countermeasures still haven't really cracked the demining code. The mine warfare module under development for the Navy's new Littoral Combat Ship is still very much under development, while more exotic programs using lasers (!!!) aren't fully mature. (There are no apparent plans in the works to mount lasers on sharks.)

Despite the relatively low cost and effectiveness of naval mines, most navies don't prioritize their use. First off, as good as mines are at messing things up, they make it hard to maintain control. It's the difference between assassinating somebody by shooting them at point-blank range, and assassinating someone by cutting the brake lines on his car. If you shoot him, you have a pretty clear idea of what's happening and when. But sabotaging the car won't work until he gets behind the wheel — and even then there's always the possibility someone else might get behind the wheel first, and then proceed to run over a kindergarten class.

Additionally, no navy can ever buy enough naval mines to prevent someone else from using naval mines. More enemy mines just mean more minesweeping ships. Most of the time, minesweepers aren't good at much of anything else, so most navies prefer to buy regular warships, which they can use to blow enemy minelaying vessels out of the water. They they just have to be really careful to not run into mines.

All of that said, the US Naval Surface Warfare Center's Carderock Division outside of Washington, DC may be on to something shit hot in the field of mine countermeasures.

At an exhibition last week, the Navy's mad scientists put out a bit of info about a new program to teach drones to hunt mines. It's both super clever and, in retrospect, why-didn't-I-think-of-that obvious. Take one cheap, commercially available quadcopter drone, add two very sensitive metal detectors, engineer it up, and presto — a mine-hunting drone!

Perhaps you've heard of drone swarms, the business of getting individual drones to fly together in coordinated formations to perform all manner of tasks. Since drones can be made to move in flocks, instead of one drone slowly sweeping a few feet of water at a time, the Navy could use tens or hundreds or thousands of drones to cover huge areas in no time flat.

Civilian quadcopters fly in eerie formation.

The final ingredients are drone motherships. A lot of existing countermine technological development has been focused on advanced undersea robot drones tackling mines. They close in on a suspected mine, do final identification, neutralize the mine, and so on. But they're slow and they have limited sensor range.

The US Navy has been fooling around with putting some of those underwater robots on small boats, acting as motherships (motherboats?) that can transit to and from a minefield without setting off the mines, making it a lot easier to get the underwater robots to their mine warfare work sites without having to do the same with your nice new ship.

Here's the scenario: A ship lowers its drone motherboat into the water. The drone motherboat zips out to a minefield and deploys its flock of quadcopters, which quickly sweep a broad area for mine signatures. That info is relayed back to the motherboat, which in turn dispatches the slower, much more capable underwater robots to deal with each suspected mine individually. Or the drones may even vector in the underwater robots directly.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages — I present to you a for-real, honest-to-goodness, "disruptive technology." A semi-autonomous, rapidly deployable, very fast littoral minesweeping system that effectively leverages existing legacy systems. This system relies on easily integrated heritage technology and low-cost commercial acquisitions, and will provide a littoral mine warfare solution.

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Except of course for the complications that will need to be worked out. The system would involve real engineering, not just wild editorial speculation. It may not be of much use outside of shallow coastal waters — and any yahoo on the beach with an anti-tank missile could put a quick end to the whole floating robot menagerie. It also might be mostly worthless in anything but calm seas. And so on and so forth.

But solving those problems is what defense contracts are for.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo via US Navy

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