Emerging Challenges and Solutions in Underwater Drone Technology
Under the world's contested waters, unmanned vehicles now occupy the critical space from deep sea to surface. The unique challenges of underwater environments, such as hostile conditions and limited communication, demand advanced technology solutions.
“You start putting a permanent resident [vehicle] together with roaming, and you end up with the persistent capability to monitor the pattern of life across the maritime domain,” said Philipp Stratmann, CEO of Ocean Power Technologies.
Stratmann emphasized the need for persistent monitoring across the maritime domain, leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) to differentiate between natural marine life and potential threats.
AI and machine learning play pivotal roles in identifying sound anomalies crucial for underwater intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
Teaming manned and unmanned vehicles is the natural evolution in the future of undersea warfare, according to Lt. Cmdr. James Landreth, USN, and Lt. Andrew Pfau, USN.
However, the underwater realm presents unique challenges, as electromagnetic waves do not propagate effectively, necessitating reliance on sound waves for communication, which are slow and limit operational capabilities.
Innovative research is exploring the use of natural intelligence, particularly that of dolphins, to enhance underwater communication. Oleksiy Kebkal of the Schmidt Ocean Institute works with employing the ultra-short baseline system for acoustic positioning and data exchange between underwater drones and surface vessels. Additionally, swarm technologies are being developed for improved coordination and performance in underwater missions.
These advancements in underwater drone technology have implications beyond military applications, benefiting marine environmental monitoring, resource exploration, hull inspection and fishing. However, funding challenges remain, as highlighted by Michael Robbins from the Association for Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International and a June 2023 Government Accountability Office report detailing budget overruns and delays in programs like the Orca Extra-Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle.
You end up with the persistent capability to monitor the pattern of life across the maritime domain.
The development of underwater drone technology faces challenges in acquiring appropriate training data for machine learning models, especially when dealing with classified information.
The difficulties in accessing classified data for training purposes, highlighting the need for synthetic data creation using neural networks and adversarial models, was one of the possible ways to avoid the need to keep information secure but count on synthetic data to train models, according to Stratmann.
In the context of global undersea surveillance, both China and the United States are actively developing capabilities. The China Shipbuilding Trading Company has been working on the Underwater Great Wall project, focusing on situational awareness and environmental monitoring, though there are concerns about its potential military intelligence applications, as Beijing has often employed hybrid means to achieve a military outcome. This growing technological race underscores the strategic importance of advancements in underwater drone and AI technologies.