US Navy uses semi autonomous undersea drones to hunt for mines

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US Navy uses semi autonomous undersea drones to hunt for mines

Roughly 17 million barrels of oil pass through the Straight of Hormuz between Oman and Iran each day. When Iran threatened to close it down earlier this year, Pentagon officials determined that the estimated arsenal of 2,000 undersea mines could be cleared in about a week.

The Navy has now set its sights on the Knifefish, named for the freshwater fish that images objects using electric fields. At 19 feet (5.8m) and 1700 pounds (770kg), the torpedo-shaped drone is powered by lithium-ion batteries and can remain active for up to 16 hours. It also uses a low-frequency synthetic aperture sonar that can penetrate beneath a soft sea floor.

The Knifefish will be able to tell actual mines from other submerged debris with better accuracy. Mines will be able to be fingerprinted in real time by using resonance patterns obtained during imaging and comparing them to known signatures. Eight units will be jointly built by General Dynamics and Bluefin Robotics, at a total cost of $20 million. Naval divers will still carry out many mine clearing operations themselves, but drones will reduce dive frequency and associated risk.

The deployment of Knifefish, and their larger intended successors, raises a few strategical issues and hints to the need for greater cooperative efforts between nations. Not yet able to destroy mines directly, the Knifefish will initially map and image mines, and send the data elsewhere.

Tankers or cruise ships that can afford extra assurance, or insurance as the case may be, might use a Knifefish-like shepherd when navigating critical waterways. At some point however, with many vessels sweeping and reporting the same threat concerns, someone has to take responsibility to go and eliminate them. The question of whose job this becomes is reflective of a similar drama soon to be played out in space with the looming problem of orbital debris.

Other maritime roles of the Knifefish could include routine patrol of pipelines or offshore oil and mineral fields. Recent proposed budget cuts to the Navy and Pentagon may have the effect of shifting responsibility to corporate ventures for protecting less strategic installations such as wind parks or private telecommunications links, however. While undersea drones lack the navigational flexibility and sonar virtuosity of their mammalian brethren, designers are quickly learning to incorporate their tricks. With enough drones mapping the oceans, the other final frontier is destined to become much more familiar, and a little safer.

knifefish.jpg - 42.79kb
By netchicken: posted on 22-11-2012

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