The U.S. Navy has developed a robot “jellyfish” — basically “a foot-long submarine” that runs on seawater and could be used on spy missions. Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas and Virginia Tech created the submarine drone, dubbed “Robojelly,” which is powered by hydrogen and oxygen in the water through which it sails.
The scientists, funded by the Office of Naval Research, reported their findings this week in the academic journal, “Smart Materials and Structures.”
According to the Washington Post “the Robojelly consists of two fist-sized bell-like structures made of silicone that fold and unfold like an umbrella. Connecting the umbrella are artificial muscles created with nanotechnology that contract to move the vehicle…”
The underwater robot that “doesn't need batteries or electricity”, according to officials. “It is a very innovative design that the researchers have created here. Imagine for a moment that a foot long drone that looks like a freaking jellyfish floating monitoring a Iranian submarine as it sits quietly on the floor of the Strait of Hormuz secretly transmitting video back to a US Navy Destroyer about a half mile away. Imagine hundred of these things floating around in the water…”, says Howie Winfield of Charlotte, N.C. “Current estimates range but there are around 450 underwater drones that the US military has in its inventory. They range in size, although most are small UUVs that are aimed at gathering oceanographic data, such as glider or hand-launched drones used to survey the seafloor in search of mines. One of the more significant recent procurements has been a contract award to Bluefin Robotics — as a subcontractor to General Dynamics — to provide countermeasure systems that can detect and identify undersea mines in cluttered environments for the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships”, he said.
According to the Office of Naval Research’s “Science & Strategy Plan 2011” projects continued development of unmanned systems… The priorities are increasing their endurance and power, and becoming more reliable in harsh maritime environments. These goals are particularly challenging as sensitive electronics must operate for days or weeks at sea. The robots are subjected to extreme pressure, corrosion, waves and currents. Poorly integrated technology does not survive long under these circumstances.
ONR will seek to develop what are called: “underwater distributive networks”, through the use of unmanned drones, which will in turn provide information on perception and environmental changes. Increasing the perception and intelligence of UUVs (“Underwater Unmanned Vehicles”) are recurring themes in Defense Department documents.
A major hurdle for the technology is the launch and recovery from other vehicles because of low speed, relatively low endurance and short-range communication. All areas where researchers are busy working on as we speak.
Underwater robots are covert by nature because of their small size and low sonar signature. If the host platform has to alter its operation to launch and recover one, it can be put at risk. This is especially sensitive when the launching and recovering is done from submarines.
A number of new designs of small underwater drones are expected in the coming years. The Office of Naval Research has been sponsoring new breeds of vehicles, such as the Ghost Swimmer from Boston Engineering, a scaled-down version based on the body of tuna, which is able to make sharp turns and thrusts against currents with its large tail. ONR has also sponsored iRobot Maritime for the concept of a sonobuoy UUV. It is dropped from the sonobuoy tubes of an aircraft, and navigates for a few hours instead of being dropped and left at the mercy of the currents. The ability of this self-propelled sonobuoy would enhance its role to detect submarines. Perhaps glider UUVs will end up becoming a new underwater robot class. “There will probably be some evolution of those platforms for greater payload or endurance capabilities and for the vehicle, itself,” said David P. Kelly, president and CEO of Bluefin Robotics, based in Quincy, Mass.
“We know spies are keenly interested in UUV’s”, says Ted Vincent of Charlotte, who monitors Russian espionage efforts inside the United States. Vincent shared a file folder of documents about 4 inches thick and quoted reports indicating that foreign spies are targeting this area of research. The purpose is to undercut the U.S.’s edge in “underseas battlespace dominance.”
Other uses for underwater drones include weaponizations, suicide missions, torpedo decoys, as well as spy operations and espionage, according to Vincent.