The Directorate General of Armaments (DGA) is exploring the possibilities offered by surface and submarine drones to combat the threat of naval mines. The innovative concept of the "drone-carrying drone," being studied as part of the “Espadon” (French acronym for incremental evaluation of potential solutions for automating clearance for naval operations) long-term study project is particularly promising. Experiments and trials have been conducted at sea since 2011, in support of the DGA and the Navy, off the port of Brest, in Brittany.
The Espadon program is intended to prepare the Future Anti-Mine System (Système de lutte anti-mines future or SLAMF) which is to replace, around 2020, existing mine warfare equipment. Mines are present in all maritime conflicts, as was most recently demonstrated in Libya, and are used to obstruct military or commercial traffic routes and humanitarian supplies. They are both very easy to use and exist in a very wide range of types, from the most rudimentary equipment to the very sophisticated, and can be laid by unskilled personnel at depths of about 300 meters.
Espadon aims to evaluate a system able to processing vast maritime and coastal areas, discreetly and without exposing the lives of operators. The system consists, among other demonstrators, of a surface drone, dubbed Sterenn Du (Black Star in the Breton language), which plays the role of drone-carrying drone, and two types of underwater drones that it will carry to the operations zone, which detect and identify mines.
The Espadon contract was awarded in July 2009 to an industry group comprising DCNS, Thales Underwater Systems and ECA. The Sterenn Du vessel was launched in December 2010, and its ability to launch and retrieve underwater drones was tested in 2011. Full automation and remote-controlled operation from the shore have also been demonstrated.
During the second half of 2012, the program will test a new type of submarine drone capable of identifying threats. Finally, in 2013-2014, a second type of drone, that will be able to autonomously detect and identify mines, will be tested off the coast of Brittany.
(Source: French Direction Generale de l’Armement; issued Oct. 22, 2012)
(Issued in French only; unofficial translation by defense-aerospace.com)