Stealthy drone solution can detect enemy ships even in cases where sonar is limited

Modern submarine designs rely on sonar to "see" enemy vessels, but terrain features like ocean banks can obscure vision, preventing reliable hunting.  These limitations are common referred to as "line of sight" (LOS) problems.

But the wonders of robotics may soon change that.  Drone-maker AeroVironment has created a special maritime-ready unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), which stealthily hovers over the sea eying enemy ships and transmitting what it sees to a lurking submarine.

Submarine drone
An artist's rendering of the Switchblade drone in flight [Image Source: AeroVironment]

Raytheon Comp. (RTN) is helping to give the marine drone a leg up, by creating a launch vehicle for it.  The submerged launch vehicle (SLV) will jettison from the submarine's trash shoot and quietly make its way to the surface.  From there it will eject the UAV into flight.

The new drone is part of a collection of projects dubbed Submarine Over-The-Horizon Organic Capabilities (SOTHOC).  In 2008 Raytheon demonstrated similar capabilities from a "over-the-side" launch by a drone-containing SLV thrown literally over the side of a surface vessel.

The SLV is a rather ingenious construct.  It consists of weighted ballast, which sinks the craft for a certain amount of time, allowing the submarine to move away from the launch position.  After a given amount of time, these weights are released and a float collar inflates, bringing the package to the surface.  The delayed release, again, is design to obfuscate the attacker's true location.

A drogue (a parachute like construct) is deployed to steady the SLV amidst the choppy ocean, while a vane aligns it into the wind.  The tube's control electronics pivot the surfaced, oriented tube at a 35 angle.  The tube then fires, hurling the UAV up into the wind and off on its way.

Raytheon launcher
The Raytheon SLV has a complex launch process design to obfuscate the attacker's location.
[Image Source: Raytheon]

The device will be tested during the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2012 exercise, the latest edition of the world's largest multi-national maritime exercise, conducted biennially on even years in Hawaii.  Raytheon is currently perfecting five SLVs and working with AeroVironment to tune its squadron of seven UAVs.

Recent "justification and approval" (J&A) documents indicate that Raytheon in late 2008 conducted a successful launch from periscope depth.  The next step is to conduct a launch from a deeper cruising depth.

If Raytheon and AeroVironment can pull off that technical feat in time for RIMPAC 2012, they may just revolutionize sea warfare in a small way and give the U.S. another small technological leg up on its foreign rivals like China.

In related news, similar military research and development work is being put towards developing unmanned subs, which in a future war fleet could complement larger human-manned subs, while reducing weight requirements and human life risks.

Source: Aviation Week [URL shortened]

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