Pentagon’s Growing Fleet of Underwater Drones Could Find Missing Airline

Read the word "drone," and you immediately think of unmanned aircraft flying through the skies above countries like Pakistan and Yemen. Some of the Pentagon’s newest drones, though, swim underwater like robotic submarines — and they may hold the key to finding missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. The Pentagon is sending a 17-foot-long drone submarine ...

U.S. Navy photo
U.S. Navy photo
U.S. Navy photo

Read the word "drone," and you immediately think of unmanned aircraft flying through the skies above countries like Pakistan and Yemen. Some of the Pentagon's newest drones, though, swim underwater like robotic submarines -- and they may hold the key to finding missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

The Pentagon is sending a 17-foot-long drone submarine that can descend to 14,700 feet and scour the ocean floor with high-tech sonar equipment and cameras to Australia to help search the Indian Ocean for wreckage from the doomed flight. But the drone, which looks like a yellow torpedo and is known as the Bluefin-21, is far from the Pentagon's only option for the search. The U.S. military has a growing array of robots, drones and other gadgetry that could help if called upon, and the Pentagon is investing even more money underseas in the future.

The current fleet includes a 6,400-pound underwater craft (pictured above) that allows the Navy to dissect undersea wreckage. It's known in military-speak as the CURV-21, short for cable-controlled undersea recovery vehicle. The eight-foot long, five-foot wide craft is equipped with sonar, and uses seven hand-like manipulators to pick through salvage while recording images on a high-resolution digital still camera and several television cameras, Navy officials said. It can operate up to 20,000 feet under water.

Read the word "drone," and you immediately think of unmanned aircraft flying through the skies above countries like Pakistan and Yemen. Some of the Pentagon’s newest drones, though, swim underwater like robotic submarines — and they may hold the key to finding missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

The Pentagon is sending a 17-foot-long drone submarine that can descend to 14,700 feet and scour the ocean floor with high-tech sonar equipment and cameras to Australia to help search the Indian Ocean for wreckage from the doomed flight. But the drone, which looks like a yellow torpedo and is known as the Bluefin-21, is far from the Pentagon’s only option for the search. The U.S. military has a growing array of robots, drones and other gadgetry that could help if called upon, and the Pentagon is investing even more money underseas in the future.

The current fleet includes a 6,400-pound underwater craft (pictured above) that allows the Navy to dissect undersea wreckage. It’s known in military-speak as the CURV-21, short for cable-controlled undersea recovery vehicle. The eight-foot long, five-foot wide craft is equipped with sonar, and uses seven hand-like manipulators to pick through salvage while recording images on a high-resolution digital still camera and several television cameras, Navy officials said. It can operate up to 20,000 feet under water.

Christopher Johnson, a Navy spokesman, said its Office of Salvage and Diving has used "various types of remotely operated or autonomous vehicles" to help recover black boxes and other key components from downed commercial aircraft.

The CURV, for instance, has an array of smaller cousins like the Deep Drone 8000 and the Magnum Remotely Operated Vehicle. The Deep Drone weighs 4,100 pounds, and can descend up to 8,000 feet deep. Like the CURV, it is equipped with sonar technology and has manipulators that can lift and move pieces of wreckage. It also is equipped with sonar sensors and cameras, and operated remotely. The Magnum is even smaller, weighing about 3,500 pounds. It is encased by a cage that protects it from debris when operating in strong currents, and deployed using an armored cable from the side of a ship. Once the vehicle is close to its target, it is released from the cage with a 600-foot cable made of Kevlar, the same material used in bullet-proof vests and many combat helmets.

A new generation of underwater vehicles is under development by the Pentagon, too. In one novel example, the Office of Naval Research is examining "GhostSwimmer" technology developed by Boston Engineering in Massachusetts. The program envisions a fleet of underwater drones that resemble fish, mimicking the motion of a tuna and cutting down on drag. It isn’t clear when aspects of the design could be incorporated into the Navy’s fleet of underwater surveillance drones, but the Pentagon awarded the company a $1.5 million grant in 2008.

Researchers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA, are also busy developing new drones, including a "Hydra" program that will include an underwater truck capable of carrying both drone submarines and unmanned aircraft. The vehicles would be used for a variety of missions, including surveillance and countering enemy mines at sea, and small enough for the Navy to drop them off using existing ships, aircraft or submarines. DARPA plans to spend about $29.9 million on Hydra in fiscal 2015, up from $14.9 million this fiscal year, according to DARPA budget documents. There is no timeline on when the vehicles could be fielded, but DARPA held a "proposers’ day" for the program on Aug. 5 at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.

DARPA also is developing a small underwater vehicle designed to operate in the shallow waters off coastlines as both a drone and with a small crew of sailors on board. It’s known as the Unmanned/Minimally-manned Underwater Vehicle, or UMUV. The program appears to be even earlier in development than Hydra. It received $2 million in funding in fiscal 2013, but no additional money this year. Still, the program remains on DARPA’s books.

The Navy, for its part, is interested in new technology under development by DARPA that can help detect enemy diesel-electric submarines using a series of underwater surveillance. The program would rely on a network of underwater satellites, known as subullites, and use sonar and other forms of detection. The program is known as Distributed Agile Submarine Hunting, or DASH for short. It, too, is early in development, with no fielding timeline set.

The Bluefin submarine sent to Perth, Australia, to assist in the hunt for Flight 370 is operated by Phoenix International Holdings Inc., of Largo, Md., which collaborates with the Navy on many salvage operations. The company also owns a "black box locator" that is towed behind a vessel to listen for acoustic "pings" coming from beacons mounted on a downed aircraft’s flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder.

In the last five years, Phoenix has participated in 95 search-and-recovery projects with the U.S. government, many of them involving underwater drones. In one example, the Navy collaborated with Phoenix to recover a U.S. Air Force F-16C fighter jet that crashed in the northern Pacific Ocean on July 22, 2012, after the pilot safely ejected while traveling from Japan to Alaska. The Navy sent Phoenix personnel along with a CURV-21 drone and a high-tech Navy sonar system known as Orion from the company’s headquarters in Maryland to Hawaii, where it was loaded on board the USNS Navajo, a tugboat. Searchers spent 10 days traveling to the crash site, and another 10 recovering items needed by accident investigators, company officials said. Even then, Air Force officials said it was difficult to reconstruct what happened because the plane’s data recorder was crushed by water pressure.

Dan Lamothe is an award-winning military journalist and war correspondent. He has written for Marine Corps Times and the Military Times newspaper chain since 2008, traveling the world and writing extensively about the Afghanistan war both from Washington and the war zone. He also has reported from Norway, Spain, Germany, the Republic of Georgia and while underway with the U.S. Navy. Among his scoops, Lamothe reported exclusively in 2010 that the Marine Corps had recommended that Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer receive the Medal of Honor. This year, he was part of a team of journalists that exposed senior Marine Corps leaders' questionable involvement in legal cases, and then covering it up. A Pentagon investigation is underway in those cases. Twitter: @DanLamothe

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