Though the Navy will never be able to fully "keep the man out of the minefield," as is the goal for robotics in mine countermeasures and explosive ordnance disposal efforts, robots are helping EOD technicians significantly collapse the time line of finding, identifying and disabling threats, a service official said at a military robotics conference last week.
Just as diving or parachuting is a way to get to an EOD problem, robotics should be viewed the same way, Expeditionary Warfare Division deputy director Rear Adm. Frank Morneau said told a group at the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement's military robotics summit on Aug. 28 in Alexandria, VA. People will still be needed in dangerous areas, he said, but robotics can help keep entire manned ships out of the minefield, and it can help individual divers or other EOD techs work faster and smarter. "Trying to collapse that MCM mine countermeasures time line and kill chain is where we're focused," he said during his presentation.
Part of the current effort is the Mk 18 family of unmanned underwater vehicles with side-scan sonar technology and a camera. Mod 1, the Swordfish, is about 80 pounds and 7 inches in diameter. The smaller variant is designed to navigate the surf and beach zones -- less than 40 feet of water -- which includes the most turbidity of all the water column zones, complicating the UUV's efforts to determine depth, Morneau said during his presentation. Swordfish is already fielded in the Middle East, he added.
US Navy Photo (120827-N-WB378-453)
Mod 2, the Kingfish, is 800 pounds, 12 inches in diameter, and can operate for about 10 hours at a time and at greater depths than the Swordfish. Preliminary units are being tested with 5th Fleet now, Morneau said, with operators "shaking them out in the field, making sure that they can operate and do everything else" in real-world conditions.
Speaking with Inside the Navy after his presentation, Morneau said that the test and evaluation phase was proving quite successful, with no technological problems arising yet, and had the added benefit of letting the operators help shape plans for how the Mk 18 ought to be used.
"As we go through this trial phase, this T&E phase, where we're using it and it's already proving out to be successful, we're going to really know . . . the fleet capability," he said. "Sometimes it's better. You give this thing to the EOD guys, they'll figure out a better way to do something with it."
As that trial continues, the Navy is in the midst of a product improvement plan for both variants. Morneau said he wanted better sonar technology that could be more discriminatory, which would cut down on some analysis time. "We're focused on reducing that time line it takes for us to find" the threat, he said. "If we can find 'em, we can kill 'em, we can get 'em out of the water. It's just the finding that's hard."
More Mk 18s are under contract, and the focus right now is getting the capability to 5th Fleet. Once enough units are in the hands of operators in the Middle East, Morneau said the Navy would then look at expanding it to other fleets and for homeland defense.
Other technologies are being developed to similarly help EOD techs cut down the time it takes to find and disable threats. One, the Hull Unmanned Underwater Vehicle Localization System (HULS), includes a hovering autonomous underwater vehicle with a removable data storage module, so an operator could have the vehicle surface, pop out the data card and send it on its way with a new card so it can continue its work while personnel analyze the first batch of data. Morneau said the HULS has real-time data sending capability as well, but he said if the removable data storage concept could be integrated into some of the bigger UUVs under development now, "that's a game-changer."
He said the Navy is also looking at ways to improve identification capabilities. It is expensive and timely to send a $100,000 neutralizer down to an object, only to find out that it was not an explosive object at all. In an attempt to get to the next level of identification and classification, Morneau said the Navy is looking at ways to integrate computer-assisted detection and computer-assisted classification tools. -- Megan Eckstein